Weekly Feature

2017-11-08 / Local News

Town man on mission to quash bullying after grandson’s death

by ALAN RIZZO Reporter

Kurzdorfer Kurzdorfer A little more than six months since cyberbullying pushed his grandson to take his own life, Joe Smajdor is organizing what he hopes will be a solution to the growing problem.

The Amherst resident, whose grandson, Devin Kurzdorfer, a Kenmore West student, committed suicide in April after reportedly being bullied on social media, has established a foundation called Devin’s Message, which will launch in December and fund programming that focuses on teaching students fundamental social skills and how to respond to bullies using the golden rule.

Smajdor hopes school districts across Western New York will take interest.

“Treating someone as you want to be treated yourself is huge,” said Smajdor during an interview Friday, stressing that his goal is to reduce, not erase, an enduring problem. “There’s no way you can get rid of it all in our society. It’s going to be there for as long as we live and onwards. But how to deal with [bullies] when they come at you, when a kid starts calling you names — you’re short, or you’re four eyes, or you’re an idiot, or like that — how to react when that happens is what we’re trying to teach.”

Created by social skills educator Brooks Gibbs, the programming focuses on teaching students lessons that help them protect their emotions from the harmful behaviors of their peers through emotional resilience, according to Brooks Gibbs’ website.

Geared toward students in second through 12th grades, as well as toward their parents and teachers, it communicates lessons such as “don’t get upset” and “treat them like a friend” through short videos and discussions, and covers topics including cyberbullying, social exclusion and rumors.

It also teaches students how to respond if they witness bullying during their daily lives and to be an “upstander,” Smajdor said.

While the programming could help local teens currently struggling with cyberbullying, suicide and other problems, it will come too late for Devin, who took his own life on April 14 after dealing with years of harassment by other students, according to his mother.

Antoinette Kurzdorfer said she tried several methods to shield her autistic son from what she says was persistent abuse, reporting it and trying counseling, home-schooling and taking away her son’s phone.

But because her son’s social life was inextricably tied to his phone and social media, she could not restrict his access, and when she gave his phone back a few days before the end of spring break, the harassment returned after a student he considered a friend leaked his number to bullies.

“Everybody was doing stuff, and he was upset that he couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, so I just let him have his phone for the last couple days, and that’s what pretty much killed him,” said Antoinette, who felt her son’s self-esteem was good before he was bullied.

Smajdor said he plans to contact school districts in Western New York one by one to talk about introducing Gibbs’ programming and has already talked with administrators in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District and North Tonawanda City Schools.

He said Ken-Ton officials have already agreed to sit down and talk the program over after Thanksgiving, and he’s hoping they and other district leaders will ascribe to his brand of change.

“If we can save one family from going through what we’ve gone through, that’s all we’re looking at, and I’m sure we’ll save a lot of families,” he said. “The culture has to change; otherwise, you’re going to see more and more kids committing suicide, more kids in therapy and depressed.”

To learn more about the programming of Brooks Gibbs, visit www.brooksgibbs.com/.

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