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Lee County School Board OKs new bullying policy

By Staff | Nov 19, 2008

Debbie Johnston can finally release a sigh of relaxation, if only for a brief moment Tuesday night, because the Lee County School Board unanimously approved the draft bullying policy three years after she originally introduced the bill to the Florida Legislature.

“Three years ago when we started on the quest to pass a law in the state of Florida that would ensure every child would be safe from bullying and harassment, the first stop was here in front of the board,” said Johnston on Tuesday.

She added that it is good to see character education play such a vital part in the district once again, and she commends the superintendent and school board for courageously supporting her cause.

The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act, nicknamed “the little bill that could,” was crafted in honor of Debbie’s son, Jeffrey, who committed suicide in 2005 after being taunted and bullied inside a Cape Coral school.

On Tuesday night she tearfully referred to Jeffrey as being “the guardian angel” of her cause, one that she plans on introducing on a national stage.

“Implementation is the next step, but also many states have said they want a national bill as strong as Jeff’s bill,” said Johnston. “It is a mandate of the people.”

Only Maryland, Kentucky and Florida have bullying laws as strong as Jeff’s law, she said, and her intention is to introduce a national mandate that would protect millions of vulnerable children.

She regularly interacts with the Bean family, whose son Bobby was beaten by another student in Highlands County.

The family was recently approached by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and former U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., about creating a national law to deal with bullying and abuse, perhaps modeling it off of Jeff’s law.

Johnston spent years working alongside state Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, and other legislators in passing Jeffrey’s bill. Unfortunately each time it stalled in committee until this year when the bill passed weeks after she chaperoned a group of local students to Tallahassee to lobby on her behalf.

Members of the school board supported the new policy and commended Johnston on the work she has carried out for the last three years.

“This has been a long road and I know there is still a hole in your heart, but your son didn’t die in vain,” said Board Member Jeanne Dozier. “His name will live on forever and serve as something that will protect all children from bullying in the future.”

Board Member Robert Chilmonik said Johnston is the type of person who never gave up through all of the obstacles.

“You are my hero because you never gave up,” he said.

Board Member Steven Teuber said her story is proof that one person can make a difference, but he also said he wants to make sure that all of the bill’s mandates are addressed.

“This is a very good policy but we need to make sure we have the proper training,” said Teuber.

Bob Rushlow, president of the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, said he is concerned that the language of the new policy includes employees.

“We already have a policy for employees,” he said, adding that he is concerned that there may be a misinterpretation in the future.

He also said the board needs to make sure that district staff receive the correct training to be in compliance with the law.