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West Hernando student's death prompts activism and unity in anti-bullying cause

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Published:   |   Updated: December 29, 2013 at 11:28 AM

BROOKSVILLE - The hanging suicide of West Hernando Middle School student Miguel Rodriguez, 12, almost exactly a year ago spurred state and local activists by the thousands to reduce the prevalence of bullying in Tampa schools.

In the days and weeks following Rodriguez's death, the Hernando County School District continuously denied Rodriguez was bullied or that documentation existed to indicate otherwise.

Miguel's mother, Jeanette McCants, who is the founder of The Miguel Challenge - a Hernando-based organization working to implement an anti-bullying scholarship in area schools - retained and presented documents from Miguel's file that suggested bullying.

Among them are clinic visits and reports that document Miguel being kicked in the head and groin, which a West Hernando sixth-grade guidance counselor said amounted to horseplay.

A "Student Reassignment Request Form" dated Dec. 8, 2011, requesting to transfer Miguel from West Hernando Middle School to Explorer K-8, was disapproved by the superintendent's office and director of student services on Jan. 18, 2012. It cited "overcrowding of schools" as the reason.

"The Miguel Challenge" is now an active force in the Tampa Bay area, and is collaborating with the national organization Bully Police U.S.A. to strengthen enforcement and policies in anti-bullying legislation.

Both organizations recently held a day-long 3K walk and fundraiser at Anderson Snow Park.

"The Miguel Challenge" also appeared recently as part of Pasco-Hernando Community College's Peace Week, and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society partnered with the anti-bullying group to promote awareness about bullying on campus and in the workplace.

Miguel's mother, McCants, and Miguel Challenge manager Abadel Velez were guest speakers at the event, and 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 increasingly is referred to as "bullycide," Velez said. "Most of them have succeeded," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying among youth is a significant public health problem. One study found bullying victims between ages 9 and 13 were more likely over a seven-year period to develop anxiety and panic disorders as adults, as well as suffer from depression and a propensity to attempt or consider suicide.

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