CHEYENNE, Wyo. Marvin Nash aka Starvin' Marvin has been a professional rodeo clown for some 30 years, entertaining fans and protecting bull riders at great risk to himself. He routinely taunts bulls that outweigh him by more than 1,000 pounds.
"I just dare him to run over me," Nash says. "I'm just bullying the bull, I guess."
Yet his biggest fight may lie outside the ring, where Nash is confronting what to some is an opponent just as intimidating: childhood bullying.
Hoping to prevent the kind of violence that has erupted on school campuses in recent years, Nash has developed his "Bullying Hurts" program that emphasizes youth mentoring and nonviolence. The program has been taught in some 300 schools in 37 states.
"So many people think that bullying is just a rite of passage," Nash said. "Kids have feelings, too. And so that's what we try to do is help them channel and be able to discuss and find a solution that works for them."
The goal is to help kids learn to handle bullying at a young age, so they are less likely to explode into violent retaliation later. In addition, young bullies might come to realize their antics are hurtful and stop before they become too destructive.
"That's the key to the whole thing, that violence is never the answer," Nash said.
Nash, who at 53 is close to retiring from the rodeo arena, is a fixture every summer at the annual Cowtown Rodeo near the small New Jersey community of Sharptown, just south of Philadelphia.
He grew up in Texas and took up clowning after realizing he wasn't a very good rodeo cowboy. A rodeo contractor nicknamed him "Starvin' Marvin" after Nash joked that if he didn't find work as a rodeo clown, he'd starve.
"I've always liked the comedy part of it and that kind of stuff," said Nash, who speaks with an easy Texas drawl and a slight whistle since chipping a tooth in the ring.
Nash became interested in helping kids after speaking to his son's grade-school class about being a rodeo clown and discovering he enjoyed speaking to young people.
At first, he spoke to kids about drugs. But he switched to the anti-bullying campaign about four years ago after the wife of an acquaintance suggested school bullying was the root of many problems for youths.
Since the 1999-2000 school year, there have been 260 violent deaths associated with U.S. schools, according to statistics compiled by the National School Safety and Security Services Inc. A study released in 2002 by the Secret Service and the U.S. Education Department found 71 percent of violent school attacks were carried out by people who "felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others" beforehand.
The "Bullying Hurts" program, developed by Nash and his wife, Darlene, trains high school kids to mentor grade-schoolers on dealing with bullying in their schools and community.
Nash's program stresses positive youth development and prevention. With the help of school administrators, he recruits and trains high school students to present the program to elementary students over six work sessions. The program teaches that bullying is a part of life, that violence against bullies is not a solution and tells kids who are bullied where they can get help.
Bullies are publicly identified bullies in the classroom. Instead, the class discussion sends a message to bullies that their behavior is hurtful and is based on an underlying cause, Nash said.
Nash charges a $1,500 fee to pay for manuals, videos, posters and other materials used in the classroom. He has lined up corporate support and government grants to help schools pay the fee and to produce public service announcements, a special radio program and a music video.
Celebrities including Charlie Daniels, Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire, and Trisha Yearwood have lent their time for public service radio programs that highlight the negative effects of bullying.
Nash also is working to address the relatively new phenomenon of cyberbullying, in which kids use the Internet and cell phones to spread mean messages about others. His interest in the problem was partly inspired by a case in Missouri in which a 13-year-old girl committed suicide nearly two years ago after being harassed on the Internet.
"We have to start teaching these young kids that are getting on the Internet and writing these things to be careful about the words they're using," he said.
The success of "Bullying Hurts" is hard to measure, but Nash said he is encouraged by reports of kids helping each other. In Colorado, he said, the program helped stop a bullying problem on a school bus, when a group of high school mentors rode with the victim to school.
David Bartlett, assistant superintendent of the Cheyenne school district, said the program won't eliminate bullying in schools but is worth the investment because it educates kids on how to get out of bullying situations.
Sarah McDonough, a Cheyenne East High School student, volunteered for the program and said she was not aware that so many kids were being bullied.
"One kid told us a really scary story about how he was bullied every day because he walked home. I guess these kids pushed him down in the street, in the bushes and stuff. So we talked to him and last time we found out he was getting help from his teacher to try to stop the bullying," McDonough said.
On the Net:
Bullying Hurts: www.bullyinghurts.com/