Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
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Schools get wider reach against bullies

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BROOKSVILLE - Careful, bullies: harassing another student outside of school could land you in-school suspension, according to a new state law that went into effect this month.

An amendment to the state's anti-bullying law, or the "Jeffrey Johnson Stand Up For All Students Act," now allows public K-12 school districts to bring disciplinary action for harassment or "cyber bullying" from personal computers, cell phones and other devices, especially when they're used from home.

The amendment also mandates school boards across the state revise anti-bullying policy.

"Now students can be held accountable for what they do off campus," said School Board member Dianne Bonfield.

Mary-Grace Surrena, director of Hernando County Department of Student Services, said the district's bullying committee worked to revise the Student Code of Conduct in anticipation of the new law, and that students will be made aware of the change when they begin school in about a month.

"We're working to bring this information out to the forefront for students, so they couldn't say they didn't know this," Surrena said.

"We actually put it on page one saying, 'If you bully somebody off campus online there are consequences.' We do a great deal of instruction with students at the beginning of the year, so they'll be aware of it, and have to sign an acknowledgment form that they're aware of it and what the expectations are."

Surrena said when the bullying committee held discussions about the new law, they realized the district previously had instances of procedurally disciplining students, and included off-school social media during bullying investigations.

"If students had an issue with Facebook at home, they tried to bring it to school to discipline a student if it affected their daily school activity, and we have already had consequences for those students," Surrena said. "Now it's more prominently noticed."

Surrena said while the school board already has a good anti-bullying policy, the bullying committee is examining data to make sure the district is compliant with state law, and trying to find ways to improve procedure.

A 2006 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found 18 percent of middle school students said they were cyber bullied at least once in the last two months, and 6 percent said it happened more than twice. The study also found 11 percent of middle school students said they had cyber bullied someone at least once in the last two months, and 2 percent said they had done it at least twice.

Hernando County School Superintendent Lori Romano could not be reached for comment.

Robyn Hartman, Florida co-director and advocate with BullyPolice.org, commends the legislature for drafting the amendment, but questions whether it will be enforced at the school level in the way the law requires.

"It's a well-written law, but it's not mandated," Hartman said, adding that faculty and teachers recognizing bullying signs is crucial to enforcement.

"When you work at a school it should be required, a seminar or some kind of class that faculty has to take where they're actually given a certificate that states, 'Yes, they completed the anti-bullying program.' They need to be taught the warning signs, and how to handle the situation."

Hartman said she would like school principals to either head investigations into suspected bullying, or be briefed "every step" as leaders of an educational institution.

"I understand principals are very busy with everything they have going on, but principals need to be kept aware of every step at every given time," she said.

"I have the upmost respect for teachers and faculty in the schools, but if they don't know the difference between a bullying report and an incident report, there's a problem."

An anti-bullying fundraiser is being held Friday at The Locomo skating rink at 10451 County Line Road from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Hartman said $4 includes skates, and funds will go to Bully Police, Tools for Schools, and Miguel's Challenge.

Miguel's Challenge is a statewide program Hartman is working to implement collectively with the mother of West Hernando Middle School student Miguel Rodriguez, 12, who took his life this winter. The prospective program intends to improve enforcement of bullying policies and reduce retaliation victims face when reporting bullying.

That could include student bullying monitors other students could go to, who would report to a teacher at end of the day, and an award ceremony involving students and staff recognizing positive actions and leadership in preventing bullying.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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