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U.S. Attorney’s bullying program has powerful meaning for U.S. Marshal

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U.S. Marshal John Foster harbors no malice toward his elementary school bullies.

In fact, he forgives them and is trying to help not only the victims of bullying but the bullies themselves.

"Sometimes I wonder if they were hurting," he said of his elementary school bullies. "What would have happened if someone would have helped them?"

That's why Foster is participating in a program started by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Officials hope this program will change the bullies and the victims for the better.  

"Hopefully, some kid somewhere may rethink bullying someone," Foster said adding that he hopes the victims, consequently, will speak out about being bullied and not try to keep things hidden.

Goodwin said he was inspired to create this program after a few instances of violence and threats of violence in schools across the state and nation. Goodwin also wanted to get out and engage students on their levels about bullying.

"It's not snitching to talk about someone being a bully," Goodwin said. "It could be quite heroic."

The program is taken into middle and elementary schools across the state.

"You have to start young — real young. … Teachers at the (federal correction institute in Beckley) posed a question to students. When do you interact to make sure they are choosing the right path? They agreed that you have to catch them between the ages of 7 and 9. If you try much later, they will say they were on the street or already on the wrong path."

This answer came as a surprise to Goodwin.

"It was a real eye-opener for me," he said. "I have two little boys who are 8 and 10. … I see every day what an 8-year-old is and that's the age where you have to make sure they are on the right path. That's why we are focusing on middle and elementary school students."

Goodwin later approached Foster to speak with him at one of the schools. That's when Foster told him he had a personal story to share.

"It struck a chord with me where I had been bullied and I saw the power in testimonies in my program at church," Foster said.

Foster grew up in Rand and he says his family "really didn't have a whole lot" but had enough to still be a content family.

"I was a quiet, very uncoordinated kid," he recalled.

The bullying started in first grade and Foster said he "felt out of place."

"Even the first grade was hard for me," he said. "For whatever reason — I really don't know why, I started getting picked on. And the more I was picked on, the worse I did in school."

Years went by, the bullying continued and Foster's grades still slipped. Foster admits he started to believe what his bullies said about him.

But there was one name he absolutely would not tolerate.

"They would call me a name that would just irritate me to no end — that was retard. My brother, Butchy, was absolutely beautiful and he was severely mentally handicapped."

Butchy never walked or talked, but Foster says when he smiled, he "lit up the entire room."

But tragedy struck Foster's family when the family home caught fire.

"My mother was in front of the house and Butchy was in the back bedroom. All the flames were in the hallway and she knew she couldn't go that way. She went to the backdoor but it was locked. She took her fist and broke the glass. I don't know if that got the door open but flames shot out and it caught fire to her arms and hair," Foster recalled.

His brother did not make it out of the fire.  

"That's the part that is hardest for me to tell," he said. "I can remember that like it was yesterday. I still smell the smoke on my mom."

Foster went back to school and the bullying did not stop.

"One day, I was walking down the street and some older boys encircled me and started beating me," he said. "Most were in junior high and high school. I don't know why they did it. To this day, I don't know."

Since Foster played sandlot football, he says it wasn't unusual to come home with bumps and bruises. But hiding this experience is his biggest regret.

"They need to let someone know that this is going on their life," Foster said.

Luckily, the bullying stopped when Foster got in ninth grade. He still had problems in school, but things in his life were getting better.

Foster graduated, went to college, got married and later ended up working in the National Guard, at a fire station and the West Virginia state Police. He later received the opportunity to go into the U.S. Marshal service.

"I was fortunate," he said. "Some kids are bullied far worse than me. Some never stop being bullied to the day they graduate. I try to encourage and try to prevent this from happening to them."

Goodwin said studies indicate there is as much as a 60 percent chance that school bullies will end up in prison by the time they are in their early 20s.

This was the case with Foster's bullies as well.

"Those boys who beat me that one day, in an ironic twist, I transported one of them to prison," he said. "He knew me but barely even remembered me. I never brought it up. He told me the other kid with him that I knew was in prison. I took no pleasure in them being in prison."

Foster and Goodwin have made several visits to schools since that first speech hoping to stop bullying in its tracks.

"I tell them if they are on that path to prison, they will meet me and Mr. Foster in our professional capacity," Goodwin said. "My philosophy is every bit as much about preventing crime."

As for Foster, he hopes he can inspire kids to stop bullying and for victims to reach out to a family member, teacher or school counselor to get help.

"I tell them I have been married for 31 years, have two wonderful children, a bachelor's degree and two associate degrees. I tell them the reason I say all of that is to let them know that no one can determine their future or success. No one can. No one knows where they are going to be."