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Parents question‘bullying’ policy implementation

By Staff | Dec 5, 2009

Recent allegations of bullying at The Sanibel School have raised questions about how the Lee County School District is implementing new state anti-bullying legislation.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act” in June 2008, a piece of legislation mandating Florida’s 67 school districts to either add a comprehensive bullying policy or modify their existing rules.
Cape Coral mother and teacher Debbie Johnston spent three years lobbying for the bill after her son Jeffrey, a student at Trafalgar Middle, committed suicide after years of being at the receiving end of taunts and acts of bullying from other students. More than a year after the legislation was passed, a group of approximately 50 Sanibel parents are alleging that administrators from The Sanibel School aren’t dealing with acts of bullying.
Since 2007 the school has been recognized as a “Blue Ribbon School” by the U.S. Department of Education, one of the highest honors given to any American school. It holds nearly 400 students from families who live and work on the affluent island, which boasts pristine beaches, unique wildlife refuges and the closest setting to paradise of any community in Southwest Florida.
Yet a growing number of parents claim that in an effort to maintain the school’s reputation for excellence, some vital services are being thrown to the wayside.
One parent, Rebecka Evans, said her son was physically bullied by another student and questioned about the alleged incident for hours outside in the rain. Later, the mother of the child accused of bullying had her son — who denied the allegations — undergo a polygraph test which indicated he was telling the truth. These results were allegedly used without either parent’s knowledge to then question Evans’ son.
“The polygraph was used as a tool against my son in private interviews without my permission or the permission of the mother,” said Evans. “The school used it on the property and showed it to a minor without my permission.”
Another student, the son of Retta Gonzales, was also allegedly questioned in the rain about the alledged incident between Evan’s son and the other child. Gonzales said her son broke up a physical altercation between the two other boys and, as a result, was included in the questioning.
M.G. Whitaker’s daughter also attended The Sanibel School and was physically threatened by another child. Whitaker also serves as a guardian for another child at the school, who she says was threatened by the same child.
According to Whitaker, the school took no action concerning the child accused of making the statements.
Each of the parents who came forward claim that nothing was done by school officials and that they were never notified about what happened.
“I was not contacted,” said Evans. “I contacted them after my son came home and said I had to go to the office today.”
According to the district’s Bullying and Harassment policy, all “school employees are required to report alleged violations of the policy,” and “the principal, or designee, shall promptly report…the occurrence of any incident of bullying or harassment…on the day the investigation is initiated.”
Of course, some incidents of bullying may never be reported by students, teachers may not always see everything that happens, and not every reported act may fall under the criteria of “bullying or harassment.”
Furthermore, it may take a day or longer for an investigation to be initiated.
District spokesperson Joe Donzelli said schools are required by the law to “promptly” report incidents to parents, but there is no specific time frame. Employees of The Sanibel School couldn’t comment on the issue since an investigation is under way but other parents have emphatically defended the principal, the staff and the school’s operations.
“Lee County Public Schools has said these issues are to be addressed or investigated within two school days, which is more stringent than what the law itself requires,” said Donzelli. “You asked if the policy is being implemented; the answer is yes.”
He said that details about the alleged incidents — such as whether they occurred, the course of action or final outcome — can’t be publicly shared because it involves students.
“In fact, that information cannot be shared with the parents of other students involved as it is private and confidential,” he said. “So for claims to be made that no disciplinary action was taken aren’t really based in fact because that information wouldn’t be provided by the school or district.”
He added that anti-bullying policies aren’t new to Lee County. Before “Jeff’s Law” was signed by Crist, the district already had a policy dealing with this issue, he said.
“Staff had to make minor adjustments to what was already in place to be in compliance with the law, but schools have been addressing this well before the law was passed,” said Donzelli.
School districts and the Florida Department of Education started compiling statistics on acts of bullying and harassment during 2007-2008 school year as part of Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting.
During this academic year, there were 5,265 reports of bullying and 4,864 reports of harassment statewide, as common as drug possession or the use of tobacco.
Evans said there are 50 other families in Sanibel whose children have had similar experiences and signed statements describing what happened. But many of them are afraid to come forward, she said, because they would be committing a “social faux pas.”
The outspoken parents have addressed the school board twice regarding the allegations and board members confirmed there is an active investigation. Other parents also attended in support of the school and administration, presenting a petition with 160 names stating the claims were unfounded.
Those speaking out said they aren’t trying to soil the school’s reputation; instead, they want to ensure that school officials are dealing with all of the issues which arise.
“I said it over and over again, I love the Sanibel School, I love the community, we just want questions answered,” said Evans. “We are thrilled that no one is having problems, but there are 50 to 100 families having a problem.”
Whitaker said many families don’t want to speak out because they are afraid of personal attacks.
“A lot of people haven’t come forward because they are scared,” she said.
A Cape Coral education advocate, Judy Piesco, has been working with some of the parents at the school since they went public with their issues. During the last school board meeting a sheriff’s deputy escorted her out of the building after she questioned the board’s decision to allow Sanibel parents to stand and applaud during public comment.
“They have thrown parents out for applauding and they allowed the parents to stand at Tuesday’s meeting,” said Piesco. “Part of the problem is that there is a tremendous amount of retaliation happening around here. There is a real ugliness developing.”