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CCS bully battle engages ‘Sweethearts’

Duo delivers message they’ve shared with 2 million nationwide

Cooperstown High Alum Tom Murphy, left, and Iraq War vet Rick Yarosh, right, flank CCS Junior / Senior High Assistant Principal Amy Malcuria after a March 7 interactive anti-bullying assembly.


The lights went out in Cooperstown High School’s Sterling Auditorium on the afternoon of March 7, not long after sophomores, juniors, and seniors had filed in for an afternoon assembly. The video screen went live with a high-energy montage of career highlights for Mixed Martial Arts fighter Tom Murphy, routinely battling his opponents to the mat and raising his arms in victory.

“I hate fighting,” Mr. Murphy said as the video ended and the lights came up. “There’s nothing I find more despicable than fighting to solve a problem.”

MMA, he said, was a competition: “20 years of preparation fighting men who had prepared and trained as hard and long as I did to compete in a sport, to win or to do better than others.”

Mr. Murphy – a 1994 graduate of Cooperstown High School – wasn’t there to talk about his years in the ring (he stopped in 2008) but to lead students through an uptempo lesson on how to defeat bullies. “Sweethearts & Heroes,” the program he co-founded with Iraq War vet Rick Yarosh – a retired sergeant with the United States Army – has challenged some two million students across the country to, as Mr. Murphy said, “own the moment” to jump in and help when they witness bullying.

Tailored for each age group across the district’s K-12 student population, the Sweethearts presentation to the high schoolers began in earnest with a jolting discussion about teen suicide. The oldest students were the last assembly of the day; immediately prior, a few busloads of elementary school students joined in a high-energy assembly aimed directly at their age level.

“This is the moral puzzle, the biggest problem we have right now,” Mr. Murphy said to the senior high assembly. Showing a photo of a 12-year-old girl from Florida who later would live-stream her suicide, he said, “She felt hopeless so she gave up. It’s why hundreds of thousands of students every day think about suicide, why 22 members of the United States armed forces commit suicide each day.”

Sgt. Yarosh, injured in Iraq with burns over most of his body, told the assembly the details of the day in 2006 when his small tank hit an improvised explosive device (“an I.E.D., a homemade bomb”) and caused an explosion inside the turret where he and his colleague (who died one week later from the injuries he sustained in the explosion) were sitting. The life-altering event, he said, left him feeling hopeless until he saw an opportunity to use his experience to empower others who felt similar despair. He and Mr. Murphy teamed up to form “Sweethearts & Heroes.”

“Bully is a 16th Century word that originally meant ‘sweetheart,’” he said. “None of us get to where we are without sweethearts.”

The duo challenged students (“and educators!” Mr. Murphy repeatedly exhorted) to learn what they call the ‘stop-drop-and-roll’ of how to tap into their own abilities to address bullying situations head-on, how to recognize troubling situations, and how to take action.

Students lined up at the end of the assembly for photos with Mr. Murphy and Sgt. Yarosh and to talk more about some of the finer details of the nearly 90-minute presentation.

Mr. Murphy said he was looking forward to events at the school on Tuesday and Wednesday – ‘Circle’ meetings with small groups of students and educators seated in a circle and discussing, one at a time, various situations and/or empathetic outreach. “It’s really the most amazing part of this whole program,” he said. “You see kids open up and commit to helping.”

“Bullying, how ever you define it, is happening all the time,” Mr. Murphy said. “Think about what these kids lost in the last two years. Their meaning in life, human acceptance, it was all ripped away from them. We have to get back to knowing how to treat the others around us.”

Cooperstown Junior/Senior High School Assistant Principal Amy Malcuria coordinated the ‘Sweethearts & Heroes” presentation alongside district Superintendent Sarah Spross, who first discussed the program with The Freeman’s Journal / Hometown Oneonta earlier this year as one part of a larger plan to address complaints from district students and parents.

As this newspaper reported, two CCS seniors addressed the district’s Board of Education in December 2021 and said they did not feel they had the support of “a member of the school’s administration” when they expressed concerns about incidences of bullying they had either endured or witnessed.

Grant Crowson, president of the school’s senior class, was one of the two students who spoke in December. Before Monday’s assembly, he said, “I do not believe ‘Sweethearts & Heroes’ adequately addresses my concerns. I believe it opens a door to educate my classmates on bullying, but does not address the issues we voiced regarding certain administrators.”

“This conversation has been a long time in coming,” Ms. Malcuria said this week. “I believe in restorative practices. We want every student to feel safe here because they can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.”

“This isn’t the end of our work,” she said. “We’re going to keep going with training for staff and faculty. As a parent myself I’m happy to see this group come in and jumpstart the discussion.”


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