Johnny Bench’s App for Schools Fights Bullying 

To baseball fans, Johnny Bench epitomizes toughness: 11 broken bones and three major operations during a Hall of Fame major-league career that spanned 1,744 games at catcher, the game’s most grueling position.

Oh, and throw in an estimated 24,000 squats a year; being hit countless times by foul tips from pitches approaching 100 mph, as well as by runners in home plate collisions; playing virtually the entire 1975 season with a shoulder injury that resulted in cartilage and part of his collarbone being removed; a dramatic ninth-inning home run in a 1972 playoff game while secretly playing with a growth on his lung that required off-season surgery.

It’s assumed that bullies leave tough guys alone. But as an eighth-grader growing up in Binger, Oklahoma, Bench was a target for this different kind of pain that can be every bit as lasting.

“There were these two kids, always bullying people,” he says. “I’ll never forget them. One was always pushing people. One day he pushed too much and I busted the kid in the mouth. I got in trouble for it, but I wasn’t heckled so much after that.”

Bench knows that wasn’t an ideal response. It may be even less of a viable option now—in a time when some schools have problems with armed students, a time when so many people are quick to sue. But since bullying wasn’t seen as a major problem then, fewer solutions were available.

All-purpose notifications

Now there are more ways to stand up to bullies. As the father of school-age boys age 7 and 11, the longtime Cincinnati Reds star is alarmed by the short- and long-term effects that bullying can have on children’s sense of safety and their ability to grow up confident and productive. So his new company, moblWorks, has unveiled a mobile app for schools to fight the problem.

The Smithfield School App —so-called because it is sponsored by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods— helps students feel more in control of their safety. Available for free to K-12 schools in the United States (except for a $79 monthly hosting fee), the app lets teachers and administrators notify parents of reports of bullying, cyberbullying, threats, school closings and other alerts. It works with smartphones and all pads, and schools can choose what they want students to report.

Using a feature called Incident Reporting, students begin the information process by reporting bullying, crimes, threats, weapons and other problems so that school officials can take appropriate action.

“The app started out with bullying in mind but expanded to where you can get these alerts and text notifications about bringing people up-to-date on things,” Bench says. “If there’s a threat and parents are standing outside and the school’s on lockdown, how do you communicate? It’s just the idea that some young people can at least put out that some of these bad things are happening.”

Users can get information related to weather, facility problems and accidents so that schools can relay the information to parents, faculty and students. There is also information about the school, such as academics, clubs, sports, music and schedules.

The copyrighted app is “a great opportunity to reach out to these kids and make them feel safer,” Bench says. “It’s just an invaluable app in so many ways because it just keeps you up-to-date with what’s happening in your school, kind of a safety valve for all of us.”

Learning with a son

As Bench’s son Justin recently neared the end of fifth grade, he was working on a book report for “Blackbird Fly” by Erin Entrada Kelly. Before long, Bench was consumed by the saga of Apple Yengko, the only Filipino-American girl in her small Louisiana school.

“So I’m reading along with him, and it’s all about kids and bullying and belittling people, how she is an outcast and ostracized by mean-spirited kids looking for popularity, so they band together and make fun of other kids. They put Apple on the ‘Dog Log,’ the boys’ list of the ugliest girls.

“In the book, there was nobody there for her. There was no sounding board, no people listening. Kids had no one to talk to. They just had to suffer.

“Some kids don’t even want to go to school because of bullying. I’ve been involved with the National Guard Youth Foundation, where I know that 25 percent of our kids drop out of school because first they fail, but a lot of it has to do with them getting bullied. They have nobody listening to them. They cannot talk to anybody.”

In the book, the fictitious main character takes up the guitar and eventually finds comfort in who she is. Her musical ability helps her gain acceptance, but her main victory is in her acceptance of herself.

Bench is pleased to see what his sons have learned about bullying. “You have an association right then and there that your boy is starting to learn that this is mean, and that people suffer from hearing these things. I learned when I was a young boy that there are always greater and lesser people than all of us.”

He reminds that bullying isn’t just a fear and safety issue. It pounds away at confidence and prevents young people from reaching their potential.

“Pretty soon, you don’t want to try out for the play. You don’t want to try out for the team because they tell you you’re not as good as they are and they’ll make fun of you—and now with social media, the cyberbullying makes the situation worse. All some of these kids need is just to have the confidence to walk down the hall and not be bothered.”

Promise and momentum

Bench’s company announced the launch of the app in November. He looks forward to having new momentum at the start of a school year for the first time.

“We’re still counting the numbers on how many schools have been using it,” he says, adding that the app is off to a slow start. He theorizes part of the problem may be that even though schools can choose what they want students to report, some schools are leery of consequences if someone feels they haven’t responded to notifications from students. “But everything’s ready to roll now.”

He has seen many signs of the app’s promise: “One school had over 2,000 downloads of the app by the alumni, teachers and parents. The reason is that this app is so much more (than about bullying) because it now alerts you to any problems in the school.

“Let’s say you’re anywhere north, and all of a sudden there’s a snowstorm. You just send out a text and everybody gets notified that school will open at 10 o’clock, or school will be released early. Or maybe the football game has been postponed tonight.”

Bench says the school is responsible for writing the text for the apps. Because the system is set up that the original notification is anonymous, there is a chance the app can be used the wrong way—“but from the back end, we can actually go in and find out where that is coming from. So there is that protection as well.”

In the end, the Smithfield School App is all about protection for everybody: students; parents who want their kids protected physically and emotionally; schools seeking to maximize the best learning environment. “It’s very much about peace of mind,” Bench says, “but it’s also about just doing the right thing.

“So with this, let the faculty and the head of the school know what’s going on and say, ‘Stop this. Stop this right now.’”

Photo credit: Bobby Bench.