Family members said David Phan, who shot himself in front of peers two months ago, could not deal with the bullying and the burden of being a gay Asian student in a school they believe did not support him.
Miyairi created the new anti-bullying program specifically to address these issues.
"It's important for [students] to understand the media messages and how our society views men and women," Miyairi said Sunday. "Those students were not too young to be educated about treating everyone equally regardless of appearance, color of skin, or body size."
The new program met with applause from other counseling professionals. Miyairi conducted the new program at the beginning of the school year at Albion Middle School in Sandy.
"Middle school is such a difficult time for most students and weight-body image concerns make this time even more challenging," said Albion counselor Cathy Nelson in an email. "This program's goals were to address weight-related bullying and to empower students with the confidence that they are beautiful just the way they are. This is a message that all students need, and need often."
At the beginning of the program, 41 percent of students reported experiencing bullying, while 34 percent did so after the two-month program.
Moises Prospero, a Utah research consultant on criminal and social justice issues with a doctorate in social work, said many students take their messages about the body from the media.
"People don't remember how many factors are related to body images and the role models being pushed upon our children," said Prospero, who was a mentor of Miyairi. "The social norm has been females anorexic looking and males extremely muscular, but now we're seeing some of the men being extremely thin."
"The message is it's your fault if you're overweight or underweight because we're an individualistic culture," Prospero said. "But we've taken away PE, there are preservatives in food, and we have these extreme views of what is the look of health … rather than the mental health of the individual. Maya's intervention is trying to address those issues."
Miyairi, who is finishing up her research for a doctorate in health promotion and education, said her program highlights the gap between what children know about bullying and how they actually behave in school around peers.
"We're educating the kids that this is not acceptable and to become leaders for others," Miyairi said. "We want to teach empathy as a core value. We tell the students: Next year, new students will come here and copy what you do now."
Miyairi, who came to Utah from her native Japan, said a significant component of her program includes healthy communication skills.
"We role-play," she said. "The students are shy at first but then they get into it. They learn how to express their emotions in healthy ways."
Albion Middle School does not have more of a bullying issue than other schools, Miyairi said, but school officials were open to her conducting her research an openness that is not always easy to find.
Albion Middle School has other anti-bullying programs: anti-bullying lessons, Internet safety/cyber-bullying lessons, and anti-bullying video clips delivered through home-room classes.
"We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Maya and the University of Utah to provide this intervention program for our students," Nelson said. "With only two counselors for 900 students, it's wonderful to take advantage of as many resources as possible to address the needs of our students."
Before pursuing her doctorate, Miyairi worked for four years at Avalon Hills in Logan, where she helped treat those with eating disorders.
"I'm hoping more school districts and researchers can work together," said Miyairi, who will get her doctorate sometime this summer. "My next plan is to expand this project to educate parents, teachers and school administrators. If we create a nonjudgmental environment in the community, I believe bullying incidents will be reduced."
People in need of help with bullying or other issues can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Utah CrisisLine 1-801-587-3000.
New anti-bullying program
As part of her University of Utah doctorate thesis, Maya Miyairi created a two-month anti-bullying program designed to address issues not often found in such programs: ideal-body image, body esteem and racial issues, among others.
Her study at a Utah middle school measured students' perceptions on teasing as well as bullying experiences, which decreased by 7 percent after the program. The new anti-bullying program had the following schedule.
Week 1: Introduction and ground rules.
Week 2: Helping students claiming their strengths.
Week 3: Core values such as empathy.
Week 4: How the media manipulates ideal-body images.
Week 5: Media literacy and how it stigmatizes weight.
Week 6 & 7: Role playing to foster healthy communication.
Week 8: Students finishing by creating bullying-awareness posters.