Bullying: A Search for Solutions

• Bullying Background    • Polk and Florida Numbers

We Know Bullying When We See It, But Can We Define It?

LAKELAND | There's no question that Brutus was a bully. Look at the way he pushed around Popeye, called folks ugly names and forced his attentions on Olive Oyl. Even his name was menacing.

If only it were that easy to identify bullies in 2014.

In an era when schools must handle rising claims of bullying among students, school districts have created definitions of bullying to guide their investigations. And highly publicized cases of alleged cyberbullying, some of which involved suicides by the targets, have prompted some states to draw up legal definitions of bullying.

Rebecca Sedwick, 12, whose body was found in an abandoned cement plant east of Lakeland.

An episode that gained national media attention occurred last fall in Polk County. Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Lakeland girl, committed suicide in September after enduring prolonged and intense harassment, both online and in person, by as many as 15 schoolmates, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. The agency arrested two girls, ages 12 and 14, on charges of aggravated stalking, though prosecutors later said they had insufficient evidence to pursue the charges.

Sedwick's mother is now urging Florida legislators to enact a bill that would make the harassing behavior her daughter endured illegal in Florida.

Definitions of bullying are plentiful, and the most commonly used contain many of the same elements. Perhaps the most influential definition appears on www.stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to the government site, "Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time."

Many public and private entities use the federal government's guidelines as the basis for their own definitions.

The site delineates three types of bullying - verbal, social and physical - and offers examples of each.

The site says power imbalances can derive from physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity, and they can change over time.

The Polk County School District addresses bullying and harassment in section 5517.01 of its bylaws and policies. The district's definition is based on guidelines from the Florida Department of Education, said Nancy Woolcock, assistant superintendent of learning support.

The School District defines bullying as "systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students or employees." The description encompasses "any offensive, threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, by an adult or student," deemed severe or pervasive enough to create a distressing environment, cause discomfort or "unreasonably interfere" with a student's involvement in school.

The district gives 12 examples of bullying, among them teasing, intimidation and public humiliation. The definition creates expectations of student behavior and guides the investigations school administrators conduct into any claims of bullying, Woolcock said.

"The point is you have a kid who's being a jerk to another kid, and it's causing pain."

Woolcock said Polk schools first adopted a bullying policy in 2008 after the Florida Legislature passed an anti-bullying law known as the "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act." The law, named for a Cape Coral teen who committed suicide after prolonged torment by schoolmates, directed school districts to create anti-bullying policies and establish procedures for investigating claims of bullying.

The Legislature updated the law last year, adding details about cyberbullying, and Polk schools adopted a revised policy last November, Woolcock said.

Perhaps the best-known anti-bullying advocate in Polk County is Jaylen Arnold, a Lakeland boy who helped found a non-profit organization, Jaylen's Challenge, when he was 8. Jaylen, now 13, has Tourette's syndrome, a disorder that causes involuntary movements, along with a form of autism and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he draws his own experiences of bullying in presentations at schools.

The material Jaylen and his support team hand out at presentations include a short picture book, "Bullying: Why Would You Want To Do That?" The book illustrates nine forms of abuse, among them name-calling, gossip and Internet bullying.

The organization's website, jaylenschallenge.org, offers this description: "Bullying usually involves an older or larger child (or several children) victimizing a single child who is incapable of defending himself or herself."


Definitions are important not only to identify what is bullying but also to identify what isn't bullying.

The proliferation of bullying claims makes it important for schools to have definitions in place, said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

"We need to be clear about making distinctions because, as you've probably heard in the news, maybe there are situations where everyone raises the flag of bullying and expects you to do something about it because it's a very politically charged term now because of the suicides," Hinduja said.

Some say the media attention generated in recent years by extreme cases of alleged harassment has created an atmosphere in which any unpleasant experience can yield claims of bullying.

A prominent example of a seemingly frivolous claim of bullying drew national attention in October after a Texas high school football team routed an opponent 91-0. The father of a player on the losing team filed a complaint with the Aledo Independent School District, charging that the coaches of the victorious team had bullied his son and the player's teammates by running up the score. The School District reviewed the complaint and ruled that no bullying had occurred.

The federal government's description of bullying at www.stopbullying.gov includes a section on "bullying myths." For example, the site says, it's wrong to assume all conflict equates to bullying or that most bullying is physical.

Emily Bazelon, author of "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy," criticized vague notions of bullying in an article published last year in The New York Times.

"The word is being overused - expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words," Bazelon wrote, adding, " ... overly broad legal definitions of bullying - for example, ones that leave out the factors of repetition or power imbalance - can lead parents to cry bully whenever their child has a conflict with another child."

Bazelon, a senior editor at the online magazine Slate, wrote that imprecise definitions make bullying seem an intractable problem. That can lead to acceptance of genuine bullying as simply "a rite of childhood passage."

In an interview with The Ledger, Bazelon said she doesn't think the rise of cyberbullying - emotional abuse perpetrated through the use of cell phones, websites and other media - has complicated the matter.

"No, it's not harder to define," she said. "I think like every part of life, basically, teenagers' social lives move back and forth from school to online. It's pretty rare to see cyberbullying that's not connected to something that's going on in real life."


Bullying behavior does not necessarily involve direct engagement between the bully and the victim, said Jason Gallant, chief psychologist at Boys Town Central Florida Behavioral Health Clinic in suburban Orlando. Gallant gave the example of a popular child who influences a friend not to invite another child to her birthday party.

"So it's not direct to the victim, but it's having a kind of bullying-type aspect there that's impacting the victim," Gallant said. "So I talk about direct and indirect bullying and how both have a huge emotional impact on the child."

Gallant said the prominence of Facebook and other social-networking sites in the lives of most teenagers broadens the ways indirect bullying can occur.

"It can really manifest in the form of rumors and exclusion, and a lot of times you may not know who generated those rumors, which for a child, as you can imagine, it's almost like a double blow," Gallant said. "Not only are people talking poorly about you, but you don't know who's doing it. So that indirect (bullying) really does have a big impact on the child."

Bullying is easy to recognize, argue co-authors Marie Newman and Jacqui DiMarco, who wrote "When Your Child Is Being Bullied: Real Solutions For Parents, Educators & Other Professionals." They offer this statement on their website, www.SolutionsforBullying.com:

"While many folks want bullying to be difficult to define, so that they can delay solutions due to the challenge in defining it, it really is simple: Whenever one child has demonstrated that a behavior from another child is making them uncomfortable or has asked that child to stop a behavior for the same reason, and the child does not, on the second occasion it is bullying. Period."

Gallant, though, said there isn't always such a clear boundary between bullying and other childhood behaviors. The psychologist used the words "murky" and "ambiguous" in discussing bullying.

"It's really difficult to define definitively," Gallant said.

Gallant said Boys Town, a nonprofit based in Nebraska, draws its own definition largely from the one on www.stopbullying.gov. As a therapist, Gallant said he focuses more on the impact than the action itself.

"With an ambiguous construct, an ambiguous term like 'bullying,' we're going to spend a lot of time trying to define it," he said, "but what's most important, above all, is what kind of impairment are the victims dealing with and how can we help? So I think it is important to define it because with a definition we're then able as a community to come to a common agreement, and once you have a definition then you can really identify, 'How do we treat this?' "


Gallant said putting too much emphasis on a strict definition overlooks the potential variety in perceptions by those targeted for bullying. For example, he said, if a student engages in behavior that doesn't meet a school's threshold for bullying, yet another student is hurt by the behavior, there is still a problem.

"If a child is experiencing impairment, that's more significant to me than if someone is doing something above the threshold (for bullying) but the child is not impaired," Gallant said.

Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center also said the subjective experience of the targeted person should supersede any objective definitions of bullying.

"We should never trivialize. We should never dismiss. We should never judge it of our own accord," he said. "I think that's something that should be part of the conceptualization of bullying - think about the victim. Sometimes we say, 'Oh, they should grow a backbone; they should be resilient and shrug it off,' but that's unfair. We can't apply our standards to other people in terms of how they should respond to stressful situations."

While the definition used by Polk County public schools and many other groups emphasizes an imbalance of power between bully and victim, Hinduja said, the differential between bully and target isn't always clear, especially when the use of technology is involved.

"I don't like to include it (power) in a definition because it really doesn't matter," Hinduja said. "I don't think it's something you can identify because it could be physical, it could be social, it could be psychological, it could be emotional. It seems vague, and I think to try to wrap parameters around it misses the point.

"The point is you have a kid who's being a jerk to another kid, and it's causing pain."

Hinduja's organization, co-directed by a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, produces materials for educators, parents and teens on various elements of cyberbullying. Those include a five-page fact sheet that defines cyberbullying as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices."

Though his research focuses on bullying perpetrated through electronic media, Hinduja said it's a mistake to distinguish between conventional bullying and cyberbullying.

"Most instances of traditional bullying have a cyber component to it," he said. "There's so much overlap now because kids are wired constantly. I wouldn't consider them as separate or distinct issues. There's so much overlap."

[ Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. He blogs about tourism at http://tourism.blogs.theledger.com. ]

Mothers and Fathers Face Blame, Challenges in Dealing With Bullying

LAKELAND | Hell hath no fury like the internet.

As the suicide of Lakeland's Rebecca Sedwick polarized the national media circuit, the 12-year-old's mother and law enforcement searched for someone to blame. The general public searched along with them, entranced by pictures of a smiling girl juxtaposed against images of the abandoned cement silo from which she jumped Sept. 10.

Should the children who bullied her be blamed? What about the parents of those labeled as the bullies?

People shared a variety of opinions as they took to the Internet, where many of them criticized the parents of the alleged bullies.

"I am so glad that they will face punishment and that their parents will (hopefully) be shamed in their community," lamented one commentator on a Ledger article. "These parents are responsible for not knowing or caring what their little bullies were doing for months to this girl."

The situation leaves others to wonder how their parenting affects whether their child will be bullied or bully others and what they can do if a bullying issue already exists.

Opinions differ when it comes to how much a parent should intervene when they recognize signs that their child may be being bullied. Signs include unexplained physical injuries, declining grades and disinterest in school, but most of all, a stark difference in behavior.

"The big thing you want to watch for is change in any direction," said Dr. Berney Wilkinson, a licensed psychologist with Kindelan, McDanal and Associates in Lakeland. "If they are not doing anything they used to enjoy doing, you want to attend to that."

Whether the right move is storming down to your child's school and demanding change or simply enrolling them in martial-arts classes to boost their confidence, each child and solution is different, child behavioral psychologists say. Asking questions and communicating is important.


"Sometimes, you will ask those questions and decide, 'Yes, that is what is happening with my kid, and I really need to be concerned about it,'" said Emily Bazelon, a magazine editor who has also authored a nationally recognized book on bullying.

"In that case, because you've asked questions, you'll be a better advocate for your child because you have more credibility. You really know what's going on."

Childhood tiffs and altercations can play an important part in a child's problem-solving development. A parent intervening too heavy handedly can stunt a child's ability to deal with conflict, Bazelon said.

"I don't mean to in any way diminish how upsetting it can be to be a victim of bullying," she added. "But it is a form of adversity that kids can also learn from, in the way they can learn from any difficult experience if they have the right support."

Shawn Spivey, mother of three and moderator of The Ledger's Polkmoms.com website, said a lack of mental-health opportunities, like therapy and counseling, available in schools and to parents is a hidden factor in the general conversation about bullying and parents.

"If my kid was suffering from bullying or was a bully, I wouldn't know where to seek help," Spivey said. "I would be curious."

How and when a parent should get involved is based on communication, she said.

"Don't give up. If you see behavior changes or emotional changes, act. No one knows the warning signs better than us because we've seen them every day," Spivey said. "I think it all depends on the individual. Everyone is different; everyone takes their hardships and handles them differently.

"Some kids commit suicide, and some kids write poetry."


In the wake of Sedwick's death, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd very publicly announced the arrest of two girls, 12 and 14 years old at the time, on aggravated stalking charges. The State Attorney's Office, however, later declined to prosecute them.

Morgan & Morgan attorneys David Henry, from left, Matt Morgan and former Florida governor Charlie Crist surround Tricia Norman as she answers a question from a news conference in Tampa on Oct. 24. (CALVIN KNIGHT | THE LEDGER)

Now, Tricia Norman, Sedwick's mother, is working with lawyers to push for harsher criminal punishment for bullies.

Some blamed the two middle-schoolers arrested for Rebecca Sedwick's death. Investigators say the pair used phrases like "drink bleach and die" in messages to their former classmate.

The parents of the girls charged found themselves scrutinized just as sharply, as the narrative shifted toward those responsible for creating "such (vile) demons," as one Internet commentator lamented.

Other comments included:

"Am I the only one who wants to know who the parents are? What type of horrific childhoods did these 2 endure to become such (vile) demons," a commentator posted on The Ledger's article announcing the charges. "And can we weed irresponsible parents and their offspring permanently out of our school systems?"

Another: "Their parents should be held accountable too for not knowing what their children were doing."

It's a surprise to no one that bullying exists in Polk County and in the U.S.

Whether it's more prevalent now or just spotlighted more because of the recent tragedy, parents find themselves front and center in this national conversation.

"There are kids you don't want your kids to sit next to," Spivey said.

"And a lot of times, it's not that kid's fault."


Alma Brock of Bartow and her husband, Marc, have three children, two sixth-grade girls at Union Academy and a 6-year-old boy who takes virtual-school classes. Judging by the parents she has seen at baseball fields with her kids, she said, parents create bullies in a lot of cases.

"I think they play a big role in it. I've seen parents bully," Brock said. "I'm not saying this about everyone who has a bully. I've seen parents where their kid is a bully, and they do everything they can to stop it and are appalled by it. Some of it is by nature, but a lot of it is nurture."

By the time prosecutors declined to take up cases against Guadalupe Shaw, 14, and Katelyn Roman, now 13, in the Sedwick case, their names had already become household material in Polk County and beyond.

Judd held news conferences showing the girls' mug shots and the posts investigators said they made on Facebook.

"I want to make sure we do everything we can to send a loud message that parents have to pay attention," Judd told more than 50 parents in October at Crystal Lake Middle School shortly after the girls were arrested. Sedwick attended the school with Shaw and Roman before Sedwick transferred in February 2013.

"But the biggest factor for suicide for teenagers, hands down, is depression. That's what we should be the most on the lookout for; that's what would save the most kids."

"I can tell you the parents are in total denial. They don't think there is a problem here, and that is the problem," he said. "It's kind of like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

The attention put a spotlight on two kids and two sets of parents, as Judd appeared on TV shows like "Today" and "Good Morning America" to discuss the arrests.

Katelyn's family fired back at the sheriff.

"It was uncalled for, for Grady Judd to go up there, and throw her picture up there," said Emilio Roman, Katelyn's father, in his own appearance on "Today."

"People were coming to my house, trying to threaten my family and threaten me on the phone. It was just crazy the way he did that."

Some psychologists interviewed and some vocal parents seem to agree with Judd's judgment on a parent's role in creating a bully, though in the Sedwick case, it's important to note the parents of Shaw and Roman have denied many of the sheriff's allegations.

Wilkinson said people should not make generalizations when it comes to any psychological issue.

"I think that parents play a potential role," he said. "There are certain attributes of kids that guide them to either be a bully or being bullied. Much of that starts at home. Those who are bullied at home are at increased risk."

While some parents will knowingly look past their children's shortcomings, Wilkinson said, kids can mask the behavior as well, making it tougher to recognize.

"A lot of times, bullies present their behaviors as, 'Oh, I'm just playing around,'" he said. "As a parent, you might hear that your kid is playing around and joking, but when, in reality, they might be taking it too far and causing damage to someone."

According to stopbullying.gov, a federal website managed by the U.S. Department of Health, less obvious signs, like a boy not taking responsibility for his actions or a girl coming home with unexplained extra belongings, can be an indicator of an issue.

Bullying is part of the reason Brock said she has her first- grader in virtual classes.

"There are good parents out there," she said. "But it's become so overwhelming that it's sometimes easier to stay home than to be there and try to change it. You do what you can, but you can't change everything."


Looking back at the case that sparked her interest in bullying, Bazelon said she thinks the prosecutors were wrong.

They were painting a picture of causation, not correlation.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd holds up booking mugs of juveniles Guadalupe Shaw, 14, and Katelyn Roman, 12 at a news conference in Winter Haven on Oct. 15. The two middle-school girls were arrested and charged with felony aggravated stalking in connection with the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick.

Bazelon, senior editor of the online magazine Slate, was a finalist for the 2011 Michael Kelly Award for journalism for her work on a three-part series about Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager whose bullying story is similar to Sedwick's:

Prince committed suicide in January 2011. The story of how she was bullied made the rounds through the national media.

Six teenagers were arrested as a result. Five struck plea deals that included probation and community service. A statutory rape charge against the sixth teenager was dropped.

"I think it was a tragedy that Phoebe Prince killed herself. It's an incredibly sad story, but it's not the sad story that the prosecution told," Bazelon said. "I think the prosecution got very carried away with the idea that there was a group of girls that had bullied Phoebe to death.

"These girls were facing 10-year prison sentences that directly blamed them for Phoebe's death. And that was just a really oversimplified and mostly inaccurate portrayal of what had actually happened."

Since starting work on the Prince series, Bazelon has taken an immense interest in bullying, specifically cyberbullying.

Her book, "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying," was released in paperback in February.

Bazelon said she thinks parents can be too drawn into a fear that bullying causes suicide, and it can affect their ability to see other issues.

"It's not that there's no connection because there is a link," she said. "But the biggest factor for suicide for teenagers, hands down, is depression. That's what we should be the most on the lookout for; that's what would save the most kids.

"Sometimes kids who are bullied get depressed, and that may be part of why they are bullied. So again, there's some link here, but if we go and start seeing everything through this 'bully-cide' lens, we are going to miss a lot of the most vulnerable kids.

"We are going to think that every kid fits into this one frame, but that's just not true. And it's a very tempting frame, right? Because it's good and evil. There's someone to blame."

Miles Parks can be reached at miles.parks@theledger.com or 863-802-7516.

School House Bullying Made More Difficult as It Stretches Online

BARTOW | Nothing was working to stop the bullying.

The mom finally pulled her daughter out of school and home-schooled her for the rest of the year.

Tricia Norman said she felt she had no other option after her daughter came home from school every day saying that she "wasn't worth anything," was "ugly" and "stupid," Norman said.

When the girl returned to public school, the bullying began again. Rebecca Sedwick eventually committed suicide in September, apparently as a result of bullying in school and online.

Tricia Norman, left, the mother of Rebecca Sedwick, stands behind attorney Matt Morgan during a press conference on Nov. 25 in Orlando. Norman announced she was going to file a wrongful death civil law suit against the people responsible for her daughter's death. (RICK RUNION | THE LEDGER)

At Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, where Sedwick was enrolled this school year, Principal Sharon Neuman said Sedwick never spoke to a school counselor.

"It was a shock and incredibly sad. We couldn't believe that this tragedy had happened," she wrote in an email to The Ledger.

Medical and academic professionals who have studied the impact of bullying on students and schools say that with access to new mediums, like social media, it's increasingly important to find a way to effectively combat it in schools.

"There's always been bullying; it's been around forever. But it's different now,'' said Janet Decker, assistant professor of education leadership and policy studies at the University of Indiana. ''The responses are more serious now. Schools do have a legal responsibility to confront it.

"It's a new age of bullying."

The state of Florida enacted a law -- the Jeffrey Johnston Act -- in 2008 requiring school districts to draft a specific anti-bullying policy.

The Florida Department of Education then created a "model" policy on bullying, giving districts a starting place for their own policies. That policy was updated last summer to include cyberbullying, the term for bullying through electronic communication like texting and social media.

Polk County's policy closely mirrors the state's, outlining what constitutes bullying, consequences for a bully, procedures for reporting and investigating a bully, and when to notify parents.

But those who study anti-bullying initiatives say it's about more than just developing a policy, it's about changing a culture.

"It's really about schools being morally responsible and developing a school culture where kids can feel safe and secure and learn. That's what it's all about," Decker said.


Three things must be true for a particular incident to be considered bullying by the Polk School District:

There must be malicious intent.

The action must be repeated.

There must be an imbalance of power -- either physical, mental or emotional -- between the victim and the perpetrator.

When students feel they have been bullied or have seen a bullying incident, they can report the incident to a teacher or administrator at their school or fill out a report in their school's office or on the district website, anonymously if they want.

Some schools have a decorated bully box or a similar depository where students can slip a complaint, usually in the school's front office.

The district provides sessions near the beginning of each school year to teach students how to report bullying, said Nancy Woolcock, associate superintendent of learning support and Polk's top official handling bullying and discipline issues.

The sessions also attempt to teach students the difference between bullying and simple teasing, Woolcock said.

In addition to student training, all teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and school custodians -- any staff member who regularly comes in contact with students -- gets yearly training on how to spot and deal with bullying.

Principals and assistant principals are trained annually on how to investigate bullying reports, how to compile information and how to report founded incidents to the School District, Woolcock said.

School administrators investigate every single bullying complaint, no matter in which medium the complaint is made.

At Denison Middle School in Winter Haven, Stephen Gaymont, the school's dean, or Curtis Thomas, an assistant principal, immediately call the student who reported the incident in for an interview, Thomas said.

They work their way through every person involved in the incident. That includes using social media or school cameras at Denison, he said.

"I think the kids do a good job (reporting). We try and build trust with them. We try and communicate that no matter what the situation is, we want to make sure we have a good outcome," Gaymont said.

When an investigation is launched, administrators must contact parents of all students involved on the same day. If the original report is made through the district website, administrators have to notify parents immediately, even if an initial conversation with a student resolves an issue.

"It's good to get parents involved. Some kids don't feel comfortable telling us, but they'll tell Mom and Dad (about an incident,)" Thomas said.

He said he encourages parents to report possible bullying incidents they hear about from their kids to school administrators immediately to allow them to conduct an investigation right away.

The further it gets from an incident, the harder it is for administrators to get to the bottom of a situation, he said. Complaints must be filed within 90 school days of the incident, according to policy.

Administrators have 10 school days to complete an investigation.

At Mulberry High, Assistant Principal Edgar Santiago said sometimes parents can make investigations more difficult by assuming a situation is bullying and demanding action before it is investigated.

"Parents have 'bullying' thrown at them. Parents come in, and they're not saying, 'I'd like to inquire about what's going on with my child.' They're saying, 'What are you going to do about this bullying?' "

Jeri Gable, dean of students at Mulberry, said parents have come in screaming about a bullying situation that he hadn't heard about yet.

"With parents, I ask: 'Don't you expect more out of yourself?' They ask us to take care of bullying, but they are flying off the handle before they get the full picture."


For more information, please visit www.ledgerdata.com/school/incident/bullying/polk

As of Feb. 11, there were 122 more bullying incidents - about 20 more substantiated and 100 more unsubstantiated -- reported to the School District in 2013-14 than all of last school year, according to School District data.

Although reports are up at Denison, that doesn't mean there's more bullying, said Thomas, its assistant principal.

"They're just talking to us more. They are looking to resolve more of their issues. They see that 'if we report it to (administrators), they will fix it.' I think that's a very good thing. We drum into them about reporting, reporting, reporting," Thomas said.

Mulberry High's Gable said despite a high number of complaints, he's had to report only two incidents of bullying to the District since he became a dean in 2002 -- when he worked at Lake Region High School in Eagle Lake. The rest he's been able to resolve at the school level.

"The only reason we don't have 400 reports here is I try to walk them through it. Most of the time, a conversation (with involved parties) is enough."

Gable said he does not think students know the meaning of bullying, and reporting alleged incidents so frequently is hurting the learning process. He said it's disruptive to pull students out of class to investigate.

Plus, all the investigations take time.

Gable said, on average, he spends 75 percent to 80 percent of his day investigating bullying complaints.

Thomas agrees it takes time but said it's worthwhile.

"It can be a lot of time, but it's important. Our goal is to make children feel comfortable. No matter how much time it takes, I would rather they report to us than not report it," he said.


Bullying is deemed a "serious breach of conduct" in the district's code of conduct, on par with calling in a bomb threat, arson, assault or battery.

"Parents have 'bullying' thrown at them. Parents come in, and they're not saying, 'I'd like to inquire about what's going on with my child,' They're saying, 'What are you going to do about this bullying?'"

According to the code of conduct, the principal can react in several ways, anything from calling in parents to removing a student from school.

Woolcock said administrators try other methods before resorting to suspension or expulsion, like changing the class schedules of students involved, calling conferences with parents and administrators, and after-school counseling.

Punishment is similar for students who file false reports.

Karen Teston, a child psychiatrist at Watson Clinic who has worked with both perpetrators and victims of bullying, said suspension and expulsion are counter-productive.

"Just kicking them out of school might solve the problem in that school for that week, but if you consider it something that's detrimental in school, workplace and home, then it's not effective," she said. "They are just going to end up doing it somewhere else."

Bullying is just a way of gaining control over someone else, so you have to help them understand that, and find another way to get control, she said.

Decker said bullying is a school cultural issue.

"If students understand what bullying is, they end up policing themselves."

She said the support system around the district's policy -- the school community that includes all staff, parents and students -- must work together to create a positive environment.

"We must teach them not just that they shouldn't but why they shouldn't," she said.


Other districts in Florida are following a similar comprehensive approach to bullying prevention as Polk.

Lisa Page, the safe and drug-free schools specialist in Seminole County, said their preventative approach to bullying is showing results in changing mindsets of students.

Motivational speaker Ron Bachman, rides his scooter through the cafeteria of Denison Middle School in Winter Haven as he talks to students about bullying. Bachman toured several Polk middle and High schools last year. (ERNST PETERS | THE LEDGER)

Middle and high school students there are asked to create public service announcements about the dangers of bullying. In previous years, she said, every PSA was about suicide.

This year, every PSA had a happy ending. She said that goes to show the paradigm shift in students' attitudes about bullying.

"We worked to have kids buy in. It's not 100 percent, but I would say most of them are. A lot have developed clubs and core groups," she said.

Many schools had shirts made with words like "courage" and "acceptance," she said.

"If you've got other kids doing the role modeling, then you're going to see a shift in how other kids behave," she said.

Several Florida counties are doing one thing that Polk has yet to implement: a bullying hotline.

Seminole County shares one with Brevard, Osceola, Lake and Orange counties called Central Florida Crimeline, a faction of Crimestoppers.

Anyone can call, text or go online to report a crime or bullying incident on the anonymous hotline, and each report that involves schools is reported to the principal of that school, she said.

Duval County's bullying hotline, which re-launched in September, allows tipsters to call in anonymously between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays when their call will be answered by a district counselor. Tipsters can leave a message after hours on the hotline.

Woolcock, Polk's district bullying specialist, said Polk is considering adding a hotline.

Polk received high marks in the state's assessment of its bullying resources in its audit last school year.

"I would like to commend you for your comprehensive effort toward bullying awareness, prevention and response," wrote Shelley Hatton, program specialist in the office of safe schools at the Florida Department of Education in a message to Woolcock in July.

Hatton commended Polk's curricula and student awareness initiatives, and suggested the state could use Polk as a model. She also liked the resources easily available on the district's website, she wrote.

Rachel Annunziato, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Fordham University, said the most successful school-based initiatives to combat bullying are comprehensive approaches that educate all the players -- students, teachers, administrators and parents -- that there is "no tolerance" for bullying.

"Bullying is part of an overall culture where kids get away with doing something like this, where kids are egging each other on. You have to change the entire culture," she said.

Getting teachers on board is one thing, but parents can be more difficult. Annunziato said some schools use parent teacher conferences or hold workshops to engage parents, but that it may be skewed toward parents who already are paying attention to those things.

Regardless, she said, it is vital to get every piece of the community engaged.

Greg Parlier can be reached at greg.parlier@theledger or 863-802-7547. Follow Greg on Twitter @Gregparlier.

More Laws Needed? Proposed Bullying Legislation Spurs Debate

LAKELAND | Children can be mean.

They say harsh words, call each other names, push small kids around and make their weakest peers feel bad about themselves.

But is that criminal?

Under a proposed Florida law, it could be, and it could leave many more children with police records.

Tricia Norman of Lakeland has fought hard to persuade Florida's Legislature to pass the law that would criminalize bullying since her 12-year-old daughter, Rebecca Sedwick, committed suicide in September after months of bullying by classmates.

Pallbearers wearing anti-bullying T-shirts carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick, 12, to a waiting hearse as they exit the Whidden-McLean Funeral Home in Bartow on Sept. 16. One of two teenage girls charged with stalking Rebecca Sedwick, a Florida classmate who complained of being bullied before her suicide no longer faces any criminal counts, her attorney said on Nov. 20. (BRIAN BLANCO | AP FILE PHOTO)

At several news conferences announcing the proposed legislation, Norman said she doesn't want any other family to feel the pain of losing a child to bullying.

But some experts on bullying, including law and psychology professors from across the country, argue that making childish acts illegal might have unintended side effects, and the proposed law could do more harm than good.

"You're criminalizing a behavior that the child really doesn't understand as criminal," said Richard Marshall, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida in Lakeland. "Even teenagers who bully don't really fully appreciate the consequences of what they're doing."

The Polk County Sheriff's Office spent more than a month after Rebecca's suicide interviewing her classmates and investigating the circumstances leading up to her death. Detectives searched through thousands of Facebook messages, eventually leading them to arrest two girls -- then 12 and 14 years old -- on felony aggravated stalking charges.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd's decision to arrest Katelyn Roman, now 13, and Guadalupe Shaw gained national media attention and fueled a debate on law enforcement's role in bullying incidents.

And although the Polk State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the girls, Judd said he didn't regret making the arrests. He said the girls' actions went beyond simple bullying and reached a criminal level.

Both girls received counseling, and that -- along with their arrests -- could prevent them from bullying other children, the sheriff said.

Yet Judd said he doesn't support proposed laws criminalizing bullying. He said Florida already has laws, including assault, battery and stalking, that allow authorities to arrest children when bullying goes too far. In most cases, bullying isn't criminal.

"If bullying becomes extreme, we have laws to take care of the crime," Judd said. "We don't want to make criminals out of these children. We need to treat them as kids, and we need to discipline them, but we do not need to make criminal charges against them."

Marshall, a licensed school psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, said criminalizing all bullying doesn't address the real problem and could cause lasting emotional harm to children labeled bullies. Instead, he said, the focus should be on identifying the reasons a child bullies and determining which children are more susceptible to bullying -- and why.

"We're talking about factors that go beyond bullying -- mental health issues," he said.

"Not all victims of bullying commit suicide, and so, I think what we need to understand is why are some children more affected by bullying? Is it more about the bullying or about the child? Those are the important questions: What is it about the victimizers, the bullies? Should we solve their problems by putting them in jail?"

Teasing, name-calling and intimidation only contribute to suicide in children who are at risk of harming themselves for underlying reasons, Marshall said.

At a news conference after Rebecca's death, Judd said the seventh-grader was a troubled girl, and not just because of bullying.

Sheriff's Office documents show the Florida Department of Children and Families started an investigation into the girl's family after an incident in November 2012 when Rebecca did not come home after school. Rebecca told deputies she was afraid of going home because her mother slapped her in the face a few weeks prior, according to an incident report.

Rebecca had previous self-esteem issues, Norman said after her daughter's death.

Norman pulled Rebecca out of Crystal Lake Middle School in February 2013 after she said bullying escalated to physical violence. Rebecca was home-schooled until August 2013, when she started seventh grade at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy.

Norman said she knew her daughter had trouble handling the bullying, and she was enrolled in counseling, but she said she thought the bullying had stopped, and Rebecca was doing better at her new school.

But Rebecca continued to be bullied and harassed by her former classmates through social-media applications, according to the Sheriff's Office. She received messages including "Drink bleach and die" and "Go kill yourself."

Some legal and psychology experts agreed the messages Rebecca received were harsh, especially for children, but they said many children have been bullied over social media without committing suicide.

About 20 percent of students ages 10-18 have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetime, according to a 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, which operates a website at cyberbullying.us.

Nadine Connell, a criminology professor at the University of Texas in Dallas, specializes in decreasing juvenile delinquency and has studied bullying prevention programs.

She said a lot of times children don't fully understand the words they're using, and in most incidents, the children are learning the harsh phrases from adults around them.

"Sometimes adults forget that there are a lot of bad examples of adults out there," Connell said. "We are giving children a language and a script to then take to the schoolyard. It's really important as adults that we model the behavior we want to see."

Connell said she fears Florida's proposed law would set a bad example for children because it is primarily aimed at school-aged children.

Bullying isn't limited to students, she said, and in many cases, the children learn how to bully from watching the adults around them.

After they were arrested in the Sedwick case, the families of accused bullies Katelyn and Guadalupe were reportedly harassed themselves and even bullied by community members and through online comments.

Connell said it would be unfair for a law to hold children accountable for words they're learning from the adults around them, unless the adults are being held accountable, too.

"As a society, we are giving kids more scripts to say mean things," she said. "We are giving hurtful language, some of which they may not even understand. If we're not holding adults up to those same standards, why are we holding kids up to them?"


Sedwick's mother; her Orlando-based attorney, Matt Morgan; and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, announced filling a proposed law to criminalize bullying at a news conference in January.

The measure, HB 451, along with an accompanying Senate bill filed by Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to willfully, maliciously or repeatedly harass or cyberbully another person and a third-degree felony if there's a "credible threat" involved in the harassment.

Aimee Galassi holds a sign during a car wash fundraiser for rebecca sedwick at a lakeland 7-11 in September. the 12-year-old committed suicide after a year and a half of being bullied at school and online. (RICK RUNION | THE LEDGER)

Possible punishments could include an apology letter, mandatory counseling, community service or a consequence deemed fitting by a judge.

Fitzenhagen said first-time offenders most likely would not receive jail time, unless it was appropriate for an aggravated bullying case.

"I'm not talking about preventing normal kid behavior," she said. What I'm talking about is a premeditated, persistent bullying over a period of time by one teenager. Kids will be kids, and I'm not trying to change that. What I'm trying to change is what a few people are doing to others."

If passed, the bill -- named Rebecca's Law -- would go into effect in October.

Florida already has one anti-bullying law, passed in 2008 and named the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act in 2008 after a 15-year-old Cape Coral boy committed suicide in 2005 following years of bullying.

Current law prohibits the bullying or harassment of any kindergarten through 12th-grade public school student or teacher while on school property, including on campuses, district buses or at school-sponsored functions. It was altered last year to include cyberbullying and threats made to students or teachers online, even off school property.

Under the law, all Florida public school districts are required to have a bullying policy prohibiting the behavior and offering protection for all students and teachers. Each district's policies must outline consequences for bullying, but the law does not mandate discipline procedures.

Morgan said the current law doesn't work at preventing bullying because students aren't required to face real consequences for their actions.


Jennifer Barnes of Altered Ego Tattoo holds a t-shirt for sale at the carwash fundraiser for Rebecca Ann Sedwick at the 7-11 on U.S. 98 and Daughtery Road in Lakeland on September 15. (RICK RUNION | THE LEDGER)

Even lawmakers sponsoring the proposed bill, like Fitzenhagen, acknowledge criminalizing bullying won't entirely stop it.

Morgan said his client isn't naive, either, in thinking that the law will stop all children.

"Any legislative measure that could potentially save a child's life is one worth taking," he said. "Even if there's a 1 percent chance, if there's an opportunity to save somebody's life with a piece of legislation, it's a piece of legislation worth enacting."

And some psychologists who study children and bullying agree there needs to be stronger legislation.

But what is the right way to help prevent children from being bullied or bullying their peers?

Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University in Mankato, studies mental health and school safety issues. He's writing his third book about bullying, looking at both the bullies and their victims.

He said instead of criminalizing what is usually typical behavior among children and adolescents, lawmakers should look for new ways to prevent bullying before it reaches a criminal level.

"The focus in dealing with individuals who bully others should be on trying to prevent the behavior from occuring in the first place."

"The focus in dealing with individuals who bully others should be on trying to prevent the behavior from occurring in the first place," he said. "Try to work on the prevention piece and the intervention piece so that things don't rise to the level of serious behaviors that have to be looked at from the lens of being a criminal act."

Bullies have historically been disciplined in schools with suspensions or expulsion, but Roberts said the focus should be on understanding why the children are so mean.

"We have to be smart when we deal with these types of behaviors, and if we wait and only focus on the punishment piece, we're missing the opportunity for prevention," he said.

But he said parents and teachers also need to create an environment where all children understand bullying is not accepted.

Creating that environment will take help and support from an entire community, Roberts said.

"Bullying is not just a school problem," he said. "Bullying is a social problem. And everyone has to ask themselves: What can I do to stop this behavior?"

Stephanie Allen can be reached at stephanie.allen@theledger.com or 863-802-7550.

Jaylen Arnold is filmed by a CNN crew at a school for a segment on "The Human Factor." Jaylen, who has tourette syndrome and leads presentations at schools to combat bullying, was joined by Actor Dash Mihok, Center, who currently stars in Showtime's "Ray Donovan" and was diagnosed with Tourette's at age 6. (GARY WHITE | THE LEDGER)

Database: Bullying in Polk

135 bullying incidents as of Feb. 25, 2014.

1.378 incidents per 1,000 students. 97,971 students enrolled in 2013-14 school year.

Bullying Incidents History
YearNumber of IncidentsPer 1,000 Students
* As of Feb. 25, 2014

For more information about school incidents, go to www.theledger.com/schoolincidents

About This Series

Day 1: High-profile cases, especially last year's suicide of a 12-year-old Lakeland girl, have made the issue of bullying the topic of a contentious national conversation, and one problem is answering the basic question: What is bullying?

Day 2: What part do parents play in bullying? Do they create bullies? When should they step in if bullying is suspected?

Day 3: How do schools handle problems with bullying? How should they? What problems do unfounded complaints create?

Day 4: Should bullying be outlawed? Legislation is proposed that would criminalize bullying, and it moves beyond actions already illegal, such as stalking or assault.

THE ARTWORK: The main artwork for each day of this series was created by Amaris Mercado of Poinciana, a sophomore visual arts student at the Lois Cowles Harrison School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Lakeland. Other artwork used online - theledger.com/bullying - was created by children at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lakeland. The Ledger asked Mercado and the younger children to create art that illustrated four questions: Day 1) How do you feel when you are bullied? Day 2) What do your parents do when you are sad? Day 3) What does bullying look like? Day 4) What does a bully look like?

Reporters: Stephanie Allen, Miles Parks, Greg Parlier and Gary White

Photographers: Calvin Knight and Ernst Peters

Graphics and online presentation: Julia Estrada, Barry Friedman, John Pitts and Yoonserk Pyun

Editors: Lenore Devore, Lynne Maddox and Lyle McBride

Copy Editors: Chris George, Betty Williams and DeWayne Wilson

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Bullying Day 1 Bullying Day 2 Bullying Day 3 Bullying Day 4