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Cape mother, teacher, launches third effort to get anti-bullying legislation passed

By Staff | Mar 29, 2008

It’s been three years since the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act,” also known as the “Bully Bill” was first conceived for the Florida Legislature. Last year the bill passed unanimously in the House 116-0 but never made it to the Senate floor.

And while the creator of the bill and Cape Coral mother Debbie Johnston, whose son Jeff committed suicide in 2005 after years of being bullied online, was confident that it would be signed into law, last year it was blocked from reaching its final committee in the 11th hour.

Last year, Johnston said, the bill was blocked from being heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee by Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville.

“He told us he never had any intention of passing the bill,” said Johnston.

Now she is trying once again to get the legislation passed.

The bill would have school districts across the state revise their code of conducts to address bullying by the end of the year by including punishments for students caught bullying and to inform parents on what action was taken by the school administration.

While it is unknown why the bill was blocked, Wise, the chairman of the appropriations committee said last week that he would support the bill this go-around even though he believed the issue didn’t warrant legislation.

Johnston says the bill has no fiscal impact on school districts and she doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been passed.

“I’m a teacher and I know if things require a lot of funding they won’t get passed,” she said.

So far this year the bill has passed the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee and will have to pass others. If passed, it would dramatically alter the way schools can deal with bullying.

In the past, it has always been an expectation for parents that their children will experience bullying in one form or another. And although many parents feel that dealing with bullies is a normal part of growing up or coming of age, Johnston believes there has been too much of an emphasis on the victim.

“We always focus on the victim, like in a rape trial, this sends a message to the victim that they are doing something wrong,” explained Johnston.

The emphasis in a case of bullying, she said, is on removing the victim from the situation instead of the bully which psychologically convinces the victim that they were responsible for the situation.

When a bullied student is told to ignore the taunts, laugh it off or to walk away it reinforces to the victim that they deserved what happened, she said.

As in a case of rape or domestic abuse, bullying is all about the balance of power. And specifically, one person deflecting their rage and anger against another to empower themselves.

“Those sources of frustration could be stress at home, family problems, substance abuse problems in the family or even school work,” said Johnston. “Children need to be taught positive ways to express their emotions.”

She believes that the way each student deals with pain indicates whether he or she will be a bully to other students and that most bullying situations could be prevented if that pain was eased.

Teachers across the country, on the other hand, have been fighting to combat cases of bullying in schools, but bullies continue to devise new, innovative techniques of getting their victims. As quickly as high speed internet, wireless communications and instant messages have developed, alternative forms of harassment such as cyberbullying also have been emerging at alarming rates.

Today, “cyberbullying” is more pervasive than traditional bullying because it is more difficult to spot and, in many cases, isn’t happening on school grounds.

Johnston described instances where students have used cameras on their cell phones to photograph other students changing in the locker room and sent the photo to the entire school before the victim realizes what has happened or bullies creating entire Web sites dedicated to demeaning certain students.

While teaching at another Cape school, Johnston explained, there was a specific corner on campus that teachers referred to as the “corner of doom,” because once inside students could avoid a teacher’s line of sight for minutes, tormenting others before they were detected.

But even if a student is caught bullying, the taunts only end as long as it takes for the bully to get home and sign on to the internet later that night. Or in some cases, the bully identifies another “corner of doom” on school grounds that can be used over and over again.

Rick Phillips, founder and executive director of Community Matters, is an expert on bullying prevention and has created a program adopted by 650 schools nationwide called the Safe School Ambassadors (safeschoolambassadors.org).

“Unfortunately, we are living in a time when mistreatment is becoming younger, meaner and harder to identify,” said Phillips.

He believes violence in schools to be a major public health issue, and it has become a challenge for parents and teachers to combat these growing violent tendencies in a “bystander culture dominated with a code of silence.” Especially in movies and music about gangs or violence, children are taught not to “snitch,” to mind their own business and keep their mouths shut.

Phillips, who was an educator and principal for 30 years, said that there has been an intense focus on school security — installing cameras, metal detectors, adding more resource officers or stricter policies — and not on the students who bully.

While these precautions will keep guns and weapons out of schools, he said, they won’t be effective in keeping out personal prejudice.

“You can’t secure a school by making it a fort,” he said.

Instead, in the Safe School Ambassador program teachers and students would be surveyed to identify student leaders within the school. Within each clique, he explained, there is that one student who is confident, outgoing and a model for all others.

These “popular” students from each group or clique would be drafted to look out for their group of friends.

The chosen students, considered ambassadors for a safer school, would be trained by representatives from the program on non-violent communication skills. Later, if someone was trying to bully one of their friends they would be able to defuse the situation.

“The best security is to bring a voice and values and courage to their actions,” Phillips said. “Students are the key to securing a school because they see and hear things that adults don’t.”

And, when an adult steps in, the bullying is typically driven underground, resulting in retaliation for anyone who broke the silence.

The young student ambassadors, approximately 40 to 50 from various groups within the school, would develop the competency and confidence to make the school a more tolerant community, he said.

Some schools in Cape Coral have been creating their own organizations to deal with the growing concerns of bullying. During a recent meeting of the 40 to 50 member Students Making a Difference Club at Mariner Middle School, guidance counselor and club sponsor Kathy Saucier discussed with the students hotspots for bullying — the bathroom, cafeteria, locker room, on the bus and even, in some instances, in the classroom.

The club raises money through events such as school dances and the money supports lobbying trips to Tallahassee. So far they have raised $150 that Johnston used to travel to the Legislature and meet with the members of the House and Senate, as well as sponsors and cosponsors of the bill.

The student led club also is creating a music video on bullying using Wanda’s Song — a international anthem performed by The Readings.

Each of the students meet on a weekly basis in the media center, talking about their next fund-raising event and eating cake or cookies.

One sixth grade student at Mariner Middle and a member of the club, said he has experienced bullying firsthand.

He unassumingly slouches his shoulders as he talks about why he joined the club, periodically looking down and glancing back up as if checking to see that the person he is talking to is still there and listening.

“It is outrageous and it is everywhere,” he said. “I think if you bully a kid you should be convicted of a crime and sent to juvey.”

Like the other students in the club, he also has witnessed instances of bullying.

Some have seen food dumped on others in the cafeteria, gum and candy thrown in hair, paperballs tossed into faces and even a child being taunted for a having a cleft lip.

When he starts talking about his own eyewitness accounts of bullying, the youth shifts in his chair and explains why he joined the club.

He leans in and whispers, “Ms. Debbie’s son suicided,” and then sits back in his chair.

“If someone wants to push someone to kill themselves, we should do something to help,” he added indignantly.

In his first year at Mariner, the student was introduced to the club by Saucier who said she approaches new students and tells them about the club.

Since transfer and incoming students are commonly bullied just for being new, Saucier said, the club gives them a chance to participate in a safe activity that makes a difference.

They also are working with “The Megan Pledge,” where students pledge to denounce cyberbullying and wear a black and white polka dot ribbon.

For information about the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act,” or the pledge, visit www.jeffreyjohnston.org.