AUSTIN, Minn. — Schools worldwide book him to put a stop to bullying. One Minnesota community promised him $20,000 to get him to come to town for two weeks last fall.
He calls himself The Scary Guy, and his price tag can run as much as $6,500 a day. The Scary Guy is his legal name — we checked. It’s safe to say his presentation is unlike anything most students have ever seen.
The kids love him, and many school officials sing his praises. But CNN learned not every past customer believes he offers a real solution to the difficult problem of bullying in America’s schools.
Beyond the strange name and the four-figure daily rate, what’s most eye-opening is how this in-demand bully prevention guru defies the squeaky clean image expected of educators.
He’s no Mr. Rogers leading sweet sing-alongs in a sweater vest and tie — far from it. He’s a tough-talking former tattoo artist covered in ink.
Lacking formal academic credentials, The Scary Guy acknowledges his looks and his lesson plans are a bit unconventional.
Scary, as he likes to be called, delivers a shock-and-awe approach. Speaking before a packed auditorium of schoolchildren in Austin, Minnesota, he barfs up apples, groans and rubs his ink-stained belly and intentionally pokes fun at the shortest middle-schooler, the bald PE teacher and the “geek in the wheelchair.” He explains he’s demonstrating classic bullying behavior to make kids aware of the problem.
The entertaining antics are followed up with fist-pumping and a steely look as he delivers his takeaway: “You travel around on this world, and you put out hate and anger, and you cop an attitude, you’ll draw all this into your life wherever you go.”
Scary calls his performances “edu-tainment” — a way to grab the kids’ attention with humor and throw in a positive lesson at the same time. Playing the bully, he says, is how he role plays his young adult years when he would find fault with just about everyone.
When pressed for his strongest message about bullying, he says it’s to “show [kids] they have the power to make the choice to be who they want to be and not become what they see and hear around them.”
Kids seem to hang on to his every word, and schools and communities are buying into his act. Over the past 13 years, Scary says he has visited schools in 19 states, and he gets requests by countries worldwide. He’s even been booked by law enforcement and the U.S. military.
Some school administrators we talked to, however, wonder whether visiting outsiders like Scary are more than just “clanging bells,” as one Minnesota principal put it, rather than the culture change desperately needed in America’s schools.
“You can have these kinds of folks come in and they are, in a sense, a bit of a mercenary — a one-time, one-shot deal,” says Principal Kerry Juntunen of Hermantown, Minnesota. “Does that really change kids’ lives? And my answer is no.”
Scary visited Juntunen’s middle school last year. The cost was covered by a federal grant. Parts of Scary’s performance were positive, Juntunen says, but other parts were inappropriate enough to convince Juntunen he would never invite Scary back.
Juntunen recounts how Scary, in an attempt to show that hand-shaking and hugging is harmless, reached out to shake a student’s hand and sarcastically said, “Oh, that’s the best sex I’ve had all day!” to a room full of middle-schoolers.
After the crude comment, Juntunen says, he immediately knew his phone would light up. “Well, what got left with the kids?” he says, “The kids got, ‘Oh, that’s the best sex I’ve had all day,’ not that it’s OK to shake someone’s hand or to hug them.”
Scary says he was just role playing, and that most people find it funny.
In his interview with CNN, Scary also didn’t seem overly concerned about discrepancies in some of his business and professional claims.
His invoice to schools and his website — before we sat down for an interview — claimed his charity, KidsVisionHeart, is a nonprofit. (He changed his website after our interview.) The truth is KidsVisionHeart lost tax-exempt status nearly two years ago.
“It probably fell out because I didn’t report all of my taxes for the last seven years,” admits Scary.
CNN also learned his for-profit business, VisionHeart, was dissolved in the U.S. so his earnings from past gigs have been going to his bank account tax-free.
He says he’s trying to work out his taxes and is restructuring his business now, but his life on the road has made it difficult. And, he says, schools don’t care whether he’s for-profit or a charity.
Middle school Principal Dewey Schara of Austin, Minnesota, the community that booked Scary for two weeks last fall, is still a true believer.
“I think his credentials are stellar. And we looked into them because this is risky,” Schara says, when “you bring someone in that looks like Scary Guy, that talks like Scary Guy.”
Schara, who together with a parent-initiated bullying committee booked Scary to come to Austin-area schools, says a messenger with shock value is exactly what the community needed to wake up and take action against bullying.
“I just love his approach,” says Schara. “It’s not perfect. Some would say not beautiful. Maybe shocking to look at, but it gets everyone’s attention.”
The fact that Scary never finished college and has no formal training doesn’t bother Schara.
“In our world, the academic world, you have to have a degree, the law says you have to have a degree from an academic institution in order to do the job,” Schara said, “but that doesn’t make you a good teacher.”
Scary is also quick to defend his self-styled teaching methods and shared with CNN a curriculum he’s developing to go along with it.
“My teaching is researched-based in my personal experience and how I read people. No, it’s not out of a book,” Scary says, “but the truth is I don’t know where anyone would go to teach what I’ve been doing.”
And Scary says he has letters to prove he’s making a difference in kids’ lives.
“[The letters] just tell me what it’s like to make a difference, to make a change — to wake up to the idea that they don’t have to live with stress and negative behavior around them,” said Scary.
Juntunen recognizes some communities benefit from a Scary visit because his controversial approach can start a much-needed conversation about bullying; however, he says, what really matters is the daily interactions adults have with kids from the bus drivers to the school counselors. As he points out, people like The Scary Guy come and go.
“It is an ongoing process and the adults in this building, the adults in this community, the connections we make with kids — that’s what creates the culture, the anti-bullying culture that you’re trying to provide,” says Juntunen. “I think a lot of people are just asking for somebody else to do what we need to do ourselves.”