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New harrassment, bullying policy in works for schools; New Fla. law mandates

By Staff | Oct 3, 2008

The Lee County School District hosted a meeting Thursday night to allow members of the public to voice their opinion on the adoption of a new districtwide bullying and harassment policy.

According to the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act, passed this year by the state Legislature, all school districts need to adopt a policy on bullying.

Creator of the legislation, Cape Coral mother and teacher Debbie Johnston, spent the last three years lobbying for the act. She first proposed it after her son, Jeffrey, committed suicide in 2005 following years of bullying and ridicule at the hands of other students.

Although many school districts, including Lee County, already have a policy in their code of conduct that addresses bullying and harassment, the new act requires them to update their previous version or create a new one.

Jackie Turner, assistant director for student services, presented the draft policy Thursday night to a number of educators and one parent.

The statute requires that public input is received before adopting a board policy.

The board will be briefed on the draft on Nov. 4 and a vote should be on the floor as soon as Nov. 18. It must be adopted by the end of 2008.

“Gaining insight from a number of different people is a requirement of the statute,” she said. “We took the (state) model policy and changed some language.”

This summer the Florida Department of Education submitted a model policy to districts across the state. It acted as a template for each district to create their own version of the bullying policy.

Much of the discussion on Thursday night included complex issues such as how incidents of bullying are reported and how the victim should be protected.

According to the draft policy, a report can be issued by the alleged victim, a witness or anyone else with information on the event. On the other hand, anonymous reports are accepted, which could put a wrench in subsequent investigations or disciplinary actions.

Turner explained that most students feel uncomfortable about reporting an incident.

“Here’s the tough part,” she said. “Students at high school said they don’t tell because it makes it worse.”

On top of students, all teachers and staff members are required to report any incidents, which benefits those children who would not talk but are counting on a staff member to intervene.

For many districts, this legislation is the first time they are required to include cyberbullying or cyberstalking in their list of policies.

The draft describes a “cyberbullying” infraction as occurring on district-owned equipment. But, a bullying incident on a social networking site also directly impacts a child’s educational performance, therefore, how far the policy reaches into the home is up for interpretation.

“The interpretation of this will depend on the extent of it and be up to the administrator,” said Turner. “But if kids get threatened over MySpace it does impact education if they are afraid to go to school.”

Candy Rhodes was the only parent of a Lee County student who attended Thursday night’s meeting. Rhodes said that before entering middle school, her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome — a high functioning form of autism — was bullied by students and emotionally harassed by his teacher.

“I lived it,” she said. “A teacher who emotionally bullied my child on a daily basis and a principal who refused to do anything.”

Rhodes said she hopes that the new policy brings some consistency in how different schools deal with bullying. Since her son has moved from elementary to middle school the difference has been “night and day,” she said.

While Rhodes thinks it is important for the policy to address cyberbullying, she pointed out that many instances of traditional bullying still occur in the classroom.

“There is so much that goes on in the classroom, it’s not just cyberbullying,” Rhodes said. “You need to hold teachers and administration accountable, have instruction about bullying and create a time frame for reporting.”

Children deemed “bullies” will be referred to counseling services, according to the policy, but Rhodes said she doubts that many of the parents will be able to afford these expensive services.

Furthermore, services such as counseling are only provided to students with individualized education plans or IEPs, so those without an IEP would not be compensated.

Rhodes, like many other parents with a special needs child, is having a hard time affording counseling services for her child.

“We’ve had no insurance for four months and there’s no money for counseling,” she said.