Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tough new policies in Florida schools target bullies

Dave Weber

Sentinel Staff Writer

October 18, 2008

Schoolhouse bullies, your days are numbered.

Tough new policies being rushed into schools across Florida call for swift, sharp punishment for students who pick on others. They may be spending time in detention or even be expelled.

"We want to make sure every student who comes to school feels safe and protected," said Keith Baber, a district counselor leading the counterattack on bullying for Orange schools.

Many school districts across the state, including Orange, have increased their anti-bullying efforts in recent years. But a new law passed by the Legislature last spring requires every school district to have a strict bullying and harassment policy in place by Dec. 1 that meets state guidelines.

The policies must spell out a process for students to report bullying, allow anonymous complaints, and require school officials to investigate immediately and report quickly. The Seminole school district's policy calls for an investigation to be completed within 10 school days.

The definition of bullying is broad, too.

"This is not just about somebody beating you up for lunch money," said Jeanne Morris, a Seminole School Board member. "It's teasing and exclusion, too."

Morris said schools need to clearly explain ramifications of the new policy so students understand that they could ultimately be kicked out of school.

For example, isolating kids by constantly leaving them out of group activities could end up as a bullying issue. That doesn't mean everybody has to be your best friend, officials said, but repeatedly saying, "We don't want Bobby on our team" in gym class could be an offense.

Broad authority

The policies must cover cyberbullying, too, and will give schools broad authority to deal with students who use computers to pick on others.

Employees, school volunteers and anyone visiting a school will fall under the policies along with students.

Districts will set punishments for students who bully and harass. Depending upon the severity of the infraction, in Seminole bullies could face Saturday school, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion or even arrest.

"Bullying is all over. It is sad how much bullying goes on," said Terri Iannuzzi, a physical-education teacher at Winter Springs High who leads a group of students called Safe School Ambassadors.

The ambassadors, including senior Greg Black, are trained to defuse fights and discourage bullying. Iannuzzi says the ambassadors have had a lot of success.

But Black, kicker on the school's football team, says there still is a lot of work to do. Bullying these days often entails head games, he said.

"Bullying is not so much physical fighting anymore. It is more of put-downs and teasing and excluding kids that is more serious," he said. "It is really kind of scary."

The December deadline has set districts scurrying to meet the requirements. Seminole and Lake gave tentative approval to their policies this week, with a final nod expected next month. Orange, Osceola and Volusia are working on policies, too.

Broward County was among the first school districts in the state to approve a bullying policy, and the Department of Education is using that one as a model for others.

Ironically, the state is holding a club over districts to make them comply with the anti-bullying requirements. Districts that don't have a policy won't receive Safe Schools funding that they use to pay for school-resource officers and other safety-related items. Orange County alone is in line for more than $5.2 million of the $73.5 million statewide pot of Safe Schools money this year.

Victims are frustrated

Much of the public and many educators for years accepted bullying, which experts say is ingrained by fourth grade and peaks in middle school, as a normal part of growing up. But thinking has changed more recently.

That has been prompted in part by the growing number of school shootings, with authorities concluding many of the shooters were frustrated victims of bullying. Last spring, a DeLand Middle School boy who threatened to kill fellow students said he was reacting to intense bullying.

Other bullying victims become so frustrated that they kill themselves. The new law is called the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, named after a Cape Coral teenager who hanged himself in his bedroom closet after repeatedly being bullied at middle school.

But those extremes are only a fraction of the millions of kids who are scarred by bullying, officials say. Most adults remember being bullied or seeing someone bullied in school, Orange counselor Baber said. That means the incident left a mark, he said.

Federal figures show that in 2005, almost 30 percent of students 12 to 18 years old reported being bullied.

"A lot of students' lives are miserable because they are bullied," said Walt Griffin, supervisor of secondary education for Seminole schools. "Now they will know they can report it."

Dave Weber can be reached at or 407-320-0915.

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