Naoto Araki, a 15-year-old Yokohama high school student, persistently kicked the chair Bill Pozzobon was sitting on, just to make him mad.

Such actions can often lead to violence. But what the Canadian instructor of a violence-prevention program did instead was look straight into Araki’s eyes and calmly say he didn’t want the boy to kick his chair.

Pozzobon was demonstrating the “solid guy” model in a role-play in front of 70 male students at Hakusan High School in Yokohama’s Midori Ward last week as part of a program to manage fear and anger developed by the Vancouver-based advocacy group SafeTeen.

In reality, however, it is difficult for many boys to become the solid guy, due to what Pozzobon called “the code” — an unwritten but widespread ideal of manhood that often leads males to get physical when trying to resolve problems.

“If somebody kicks my chair, my fists would fly before (words come from) my mouth,” said Araki, who later tried the solid guy role. “It was good that I learned how to make eye contact” to reduce tension in a situation that could otherwise turn violent.

Bullying, sexual harassment and arguments involving teenagers are major social problems and are breeding grounds for violence.

The number of violent incidents at public elementary schools, junior high schools and high schools stood at 31,278 in fiscal 2003, up 6.2 percent from the previous year and up 32.4 percent from fiscal 1997, when the then Education Ministry first began compiling data, according to officials at what is now the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Schools offer special classes to get students to think about violence and drugs and teach them how to steer clear of both. But there are few opportunities for teens to learn useful verbal and physical skills, according to education experts.

To help schools work on violence prevention, the government-backed Asian Women Fund organized the SafeTeen workshops — carried out separately for boys and girls — at five high schools in Tokyo as well as in Kanagawa, Saitama and Okinawa prefectures in September, for the first time in Japan.

The SafeTeen program, mainly targeting people aged between 13 and 16, has been carried out at more than 200 schools in Canada, and has also been introduced to schools in the United States, Norway, Kenya, Mexico and Australia.

Keiichi Shioda, a teacher at Hakusan in charge of educational counseling, said teachers at his school need to acquire the skills to prevent incidences of bullying and violence.

“There are many high school students who are not good at communicating with other people,” Shioda said. “I think this workshop helps students learn about the importance of informing others about how they feel.”

In the SafeTeen program, students learn nonviolent ways of getting out of dangerous situations — including harassment, bullying, fights or even date rape — by becoming assertive and acquiring the verbal and physical skills via role-playing.

Boys and girls participate in the program separately so they feel safe about discussing their feelings, said Anita Roberts, who created the program about 20 years ago and introduced the girls’ version at high schools.

Usually the sessions last about three hours, followed by a one-hour coeducational workshop. In Japan, it was shortened to just 90 minutes due to school schedules.

The key idea in the workshops is to help teens become aware of their power to stand up for themselves in a peaceful way by properly dealing with fear and anger, according to Roberts.

In the workshop for male freshmen at Hakusan High, for example, Pozzobon demonstrated three characters — representing fear, anger and wisdom — in role-plays, naming them the “child,” the “fighter” and the solid guy.

In the girls’ program, the role-plays are the child, the “bitch” and the “wise woman.” The solid guy and the wise woman characters are models to show the best possible options for dealing with violent situations.

Although it might seem difficult for kids to master such skills by simply attending workshops, students can practice in minor real-life conflicts, including arguments with siblings, Roberts said, adding that participating in just one workshop is enough for some.

“Sometimes a girl will wake up to the idea that she has the ability to stand up for herself,” she said. “When she wakes up inside, then that can be enough so that she can behave differently.”

In fact, a Hakusan teacher said she was surprised when she saw a girl who is quiet in class volunteer for a role-play at Roberts’ workshop.

However, just learning the skills does not mean all dangerous situations can be handled successfully, Roberts said.

“We are not trying to say there are happy answers to every conflict,” including group bullying, she said. “The most important part of that is that even if the child is slapped or bullied, on the inside he feels good about himself because he was solid.”

Many teachers who saw the workshops at Hakusan High and participated in a one-day SafeTeen workshop in Tokyo for education experts said the programs are effective.

But schools have a long way to go before they can offer them on a regular basis. They need funds and trained instructors, said Ryuuichi Komiya, a Kanagawa prefectural official who works on education and took part in the SafeTeen workshop for adults last month.

“Some local governments have budgeted for violence-prevention programs at elementary schools” in recent years, he said, noting “we’ve got to clear several hurdles” before junior high and high schools offer the programs.

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