SPRING HILL - As part of Pasco-Hernando Community College's Peace Week, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society partnered with anti-bullying group "The Miguel Challenge" to promote awareness about bullying and the mental, physical and spiritual damage it causes.
Volunteers set up tables and banners at PHCC's Spring Hill campus Thursday, where dozens of students at the college signed and dated anti-bullying pledges as part of the foundation's "Stand Up to Bullying" campaign.
The organization was founded after 12-year-old West Hernando Middle School student Miguel Rodriguez took his life in January after years of being bullied.
Jeanette McCants, Miguel's mother, and Miguel Challenge manager Abadel Velez were both guest speakers at the event, and similar presentations were also given at the college's other three campuses.
Since Miguel's death, four students in Hernando and Pasco counties have attempted suicide as a result of bullying, or what is increasingly being referred to as "bullycide," Velez said.
"Most of them have succeeded," she added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying among youth is a significant public health problem. One study found bullying victims between 9-13 years of age were more likely over a seven-year period to develop generalized anxiety and panic disorders as adults, as well as suffer from depression and suicidality.
Another study focusing on bullying among middle school students found the rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts among bullying victims and perpetrators was three to five times higher than uninvolved youth.
Bullying statistics from 2010 also show among the 2.7 million students bullied every year, 160,000 miss school each day out of fear of being bullied, or 15 percent of all students. One in every 10 students drop out or change schools as a result of being bullied, statistics show.
Miguel Rodriguez's mother, McCants, underwent numerous efforts to transfer Miguel to another school at her son's request. The school district denied the transfers, citing overcrowding of schools.
"Imagine two times the population of this campus wiped out a year, from 6 years old to 19," McCants said Thursday. "That's way too many kids for us to be losing."
Through community sponsors and donations, the Miguel Challenge is working to establish four scholarships in Miguel's honor, which are to be awarded to one senior in each of Hernando County's high schools who demonstrate acts of kindness.
Already the scholarship foundation has gained sponsorships from L.R.E. Ground Services, Babies and Beyond Pediatrics, WellCare, and Staywell, organizers said.
Texas Roadhouse also will donate 15 percent of purchases to the organization to those who mention Miguel Challenge during a fundraiser Nov. 14.
The foundation also has teamed up with the Florida branch of the national anti-bullying organization Bully Police, who have organized another fundraiser for Nov. 16 at 9:30 a.m. at Anderson Snow Park. A 3K walk and softball tournament are scheduled for that event, and there also will be prizes and give-aways, live music and vendors and booths.
McCants said once the scholarships are fully established, students will recommend or apply for the scholarships through the organization. The foundation's long-term goal, she added, is for the scholarship to be implemented and encouraged in the school system to improve the atmosphere among students.
"Our community is our pilot, and our kids are going to get the gain out of that," McCants said. "We were lacking this, and it's sad that it had to come to this to start this. It's too close to home, and that's why we want to have this here."
The Miguel Challenge holds biweekly meetings on Tuesdays at Hibiscus Springs apartments off Barclay Avenue, and Friday at First United Methodist Church on Spring Hill Drive.
For information on bullying and bullying legislation, go to "The Miguel Challenge" Facebook page, and the foundation can be reached through email at themiguel firstname.lastname@example.org.