For 12 years, Liz and Leonard Bellgardt have faithfully dropped their two sons off for martial arts class. The Gilbert parents have spent thousands of dollars on lessons for Lee, 16, and Cody, 7.
But before the Bellgardts enrolled their boys in class, they made it a priority to check out the place.
The reason: They knew not all martial arts schools are legitimate.
“We made sure to interview the places,” said Liz Bellgardt. “But I’m sure there are lots of people who just go down to the corner school that is closest to their house.”
Dozens of martial arts schools do business in the East Valley, and many people are paying hundreds of dollars a year for classes taught by unqualified instructors at schools without certification.
Schools without certifica- tion can leave students without official proof of their achievements. If they change schools, they may have to start over. And since martial arts such as tae kwon do and karate are contact sports, experts in the field say that teachers who lack experience pose serious health and safety risks.
“Any Joe Blow can open a martial arts studio and run it any way they want,” said John Pellegrini, tae kwon do grandmaster and founder of the Independent Taekwondo Association, a Chandler-based organization that certifies 250 schools in 12 countries.
“There is nothing out there that regulates martial arts schools,” he said. “People are the ones that need to be educated.”
Although no single agency is in charge of regulating martial arts schools, numerous national and international organizations provide certification and oversight. Such groups document students’ accomplishments to ensure they are officially recognized, and they ensure that instructors keep their skills and certification up-to-date.
To maintain membership, schools must pay regular fees and often require instructors to complete annual certification exams.
Pellegrini said the schools that join certifying organizations show a commitment to their students. It proves that they are dedicated to higher standards and to following requirements established by a credible third party, which prevents schools from running their “own little kingdoms,” he said.
Schools can lose certification if they choose not follow an organization’s standards.
People can check a school for certification by calling the organization that oversees the martial art. If a school balks at providing the phone number of its certifier, Pellegrini said it’s a telltale sign that something might be wrong.
The Tribune learned of a popular franchise of six East Valley schools that is operating without certification. The schools are called, or affiliated with, America’s Best Karate.
The Web site for America’s Best Karate says the school is ranked No. 1 in Arizona and No. 3 nationally.
Mike Erickson, president of America’s Best Karate, runs the group’s school at Chandler Boulevard and Dobson Road.
America’s Best Karate’s certification with the Jhoon Rhee Institute expired in June 2006, according to Amy Dudrow, Jhoon Rhee’s manager.
Erickson said he is in the process of joining the International Taekwondo Federation. However, he said he didn’t know when he would submit the necessary paperwork.
The federation’s secretarygeneral, Phap Lu, said the organization hasn’t heard yet of America’s Best Karate.
But many studios put a premium on certification, constantly training and reviewing their skills to update their qualifications.
Chaz Turner opened Master Turner’s Martial Arts Academy in Gilbert five years ago. As state director and member of the Independent Taekwondo Association, Turner goes through continuous training and annual certification.
He also needed to clear a background and fingerprint check.
The requirements of the group run similar to those at other organizations. Instructors must be black belts and have completed hundreds of hours of supervised instruction.
However, some school owners skip the process of certification by accrediting their own teachers or handing out honorary belts. One honorary belt is called a “S.W.A.T.” belt, which is black with a colored stripe running through it.
“S.W.A.T.” stands for “special winning attitude team.” Recipients of these belts have not completed the requirements of a black belt or certified instructor. Most schools give the belts to students who show a positive attitude and determination.
It’s common for certified schools to use students with these belts as aides with a qualified black belt instructor to help teach lower ranks.
Erickson said America’s Best Karate allows classes to be taught by instructors with S.W.A.T. belts.
At each of his schools, he accredits one instructor who then supervises the school’s other teachers.
Erickson said he chooses to accredit his own teachers because he feels accreditation is best done through a person who knows the instructor, rather than a third party.
Turner, though, said he only uses instructors certified by an official organization. He feels that to do otherwise can raise an issue with liability.
“If you see a teacher with a S.W.A.T. belt running a class alone, it should be a red flag.” Turner said. He said a belt holder does not have the understanding or skills to operate a class alone safely.
Rob Colasanti, president of the National Association of Professional Martial Artists, said that unqualified teachers can present dangerous situations.
“If you put an inexperienced person out in front of a class, it could be like putting an inexperienced driver behind the wheel,” Colasanti said. “Obviously, with people sparring, punching and kicking each other, someone could get hurt.”
If instructors are certified, they receive documentation from the issuing organization and a certification expiration date.
Turner hangs his certificates on the wall at his academy. However, he notes, few people have inquired about his staff’s certification.
He said most people pick his school based on its location — a decision that Pellegrini said is risky.“You wouldn’t put your kids in a school or day care without checking them out,” he said. “This shouldn’t be any different.”
“The places and people that choose to be certified are taking the extra step to guarantee that their teachers and classes meet the highest standards,” Pellegrini said.
Questions for martial arts schools
• What organization certifies your students and instructors?
• Can you provide their information so I can verify that information?
• Can I see your current instructor certificate? (A black belt certificate is not an instructor certificate.)
• How long have your instructors been teaching?
• Are all of your instructors certified black belts and certified instructors?
• Every legitimate school should have this information on hand, and all certificates should be clearly posted.