- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Jonathan Benecchi sits in front of 20 or so high school students and adults gathered in a classroom at the Boys & Girls Club one December evening.

He’s a lanky 6-foot-3 and wears a biker vest, called a cut. He has a number of patches, one of which reads “Maverick.” Another says “President.” He twirls his pencil and addresses the room.

“Almost everyone in this room has been bullied,” he said. “I know that for a fact.”

Although he’s only a junior in high school, Benecchi has had two friends commit suicide, and he’s been bullied himself. In middle school, fellow students told him they were going to “come to my house and kill me.”

These experiences prompted Benecchi in April to partner with a nonprofit organization called Little Guardians of the Children, or Little Gs. It’s an offshoot of a larger nonprofit organization, a biker group called Guardians of the Children that has chapters throughout the United States and Canada. The parent organization is dedicated to recognizing and reacting to child abuse.

Most of the students involved in the group don’t own motorcycles (Benecchi says he’s working on getting one). But that’s not the point. The point, Benecchi says, is to be a visible presence in Spokane-area schools.

“It basically shows people I’m a safe place to go to,” he said, tugging at his biker cut. “We’re there for moral support. Not to diagnosis a kid.”

There are about 20 members throughout the Spokane area, Benecchi said. Anyone who wants to be part of the program must have their parents sign an authorization.

“We wear this because we look rougher, I guess,” he said of his biker gear. “People know we mean business.”

He hopes kids who are feeling bullied can come to him and ask for help, whether that’s someone to talk to or someone to walk them to class.

“I want to make a change for those kids who are struggling,” Benecchi said.

To Benecchi’s right at the meeting in the Boys & Girls Club is a burly, white-haired veteran who goes by the name Daddy Rat. He’s the president of the local Guardians of the Children chapter. His wife, Chipmunk, is the treasurer. Next to her is Syke - he’s the organization’s mental health expert, and a licensed mental health practitioner in Post Falls.

Guardians of the Children members prefer to go by their “road names” to protect their anonymity, Chipmunk said, because they sometimes deal with abusive situations.

Benecchi met Daddy Rat and Chipmunk at Garry Middle School after a student there committed suicide earlier this year. Guardians of the Children members attended a vigil as a show of solidarity with the students.

Benecchi spoke at the vigil, which led to conversations with the Guardians of the Children members about how they could get a Lil Gs chapter started in the area.

“We’re not asking anyone to step into the middle of anything at school or the community that is going to place them in risk,” Syke noted. But making a bully reconsider his or her actions may be enough. “I’m fully convinced that the road to prison could be greatly altered if a bully found a better way,” he said. “Because you don’t come out being a bully when you’re born.”

Syke and Chipmunk said they have been trying to start something in local school districts for several years.

“He and I had been talking for probably three years about trying to get something in the school, and we had tried six ways to Sunday to try to get with the school district and got absolutely nowhere,” Chipmunk said.

So when they met Benecchi they figured they had a way in.

Shawn Jordan, the director of secondary school support services, recognizes the impact and importance of dealing with bullying. He said there is no resistance, at least at a district level, to the Lil Gs.

“There are more than one group that have an interest in supporting anti-bullying initiatives inside our schools,” Jordan said. “Principals may be picking and choosing what programs they are going to use.”

Jordan and Adam Swinyard, the district’s director of secondary school support, said they plan to meet with Benecchi in January to learn more about the group.

The district is working more intensively on combating bullying, Swinyard and Jordan said.

“We are focusing many of our efforts around reporting,” Swinyard said.

So far this school year there have been 155 reported cases of bullying; 13 of those cases have resulted in exclusionary punishment, like suspension, according to district data.

Syke and Chipmunk appreciate the difficulty of dealing with bullying on such a large scale. And that’s exactly why they believe organizations like Lil Gs can provide an invaluable service by providing peer-to-peer support.

Chipmunk said, “We can’t do it, we aren’t kids anymore. Things were a whole lot different when we were in school.”

So far the Lil Gs chapter hasn’t done much, Benecchi said. They’re still growing, and recruiting members. But he hopes they can become a more visible presence.

“We’re there to support,” he said.

Said Harley Davis, a senior at Rogers High School and the vice president of Lil Gs: “My goal is to let people know that there is somebody out there who cares.”

___

Information from: The Spokesman-Review, https://www.spokesman.com

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