Breaking down the behavior of bullying
By Ken Jackson
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of Osceola News-Gazette stories delving into the topic of bullying, a nationwide behavior that has recently appeared to cause tragic incidents involving children. Among the facets that will be discussed are its definition, what educators in the Osceola County School District are doing to deal with and prevent it, how technology has changed and what parents can do to help keep it from becoming a major school problem.
This story will discuss how Osceola County administrators define it, and where that definition came from.
School bullying seems to be the educational buzz word of this school year. The sad case of Lakeland 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who took her own life after relentless torment and torture from classmates, occurred less than a month ago, and since then cases in Nevada and Massachusetts escalated into students bringing guns onto campuses; in each of those instances a teacher was shot and killed.
Osceola County school administrators said they know they can’t anticipate student behavior. What they have done is put in place a series of guidelines and protocols to identify bullying and deal with those cases while they still are isolated.
The author of those policies is veteran educator Donna Gasiorowski, who has served as the School District’s Prevention Specialist since 1999. The district’s policy on bullying totals 12 pages and defines bullying, sets standards of behavior, consequences for behavior that violates the policy and a set of guidelines for reporting and investigating bullying or harassment accusations.
Those guidelines were written in 2008 as a result of a pilot program in Florida. Osceola and St. Johns counties were the first to develop such guidelines. They were based on a state statute, informally known as the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, which prohibits “bullying or harassment of any student or employee of an educational institution.” Its namesake is a Cape Coral teenager who hanged himself in a bedroom closet following three years of bullying, particularly cyber attacks, in 2005. The state Legislature unanimously passed it in 2008.
The Jeffrey Johnston act mandates investigation into any and all bullying reports, and sets the protocol that must be followed.
When Gasiorowski helped write the Osceola district’s policies, she did so with the intent of creating a simple definition for what bullying is – and what it isn’t.
She said that bullying falls into one of three facets: It must be repetitive, intentional, or involve an “imbalance of power,” such as an individual against a group, a difference in physical size, or when the victim has a disability.
“We put it that way so people can think R.I.P. (Repetitive, Intentional, Power),” she said.
So according to the definition, a single incident would not be bullying until it repeats or begins to follow a pattern. Gasiorowski said it is important for parents to understand that definition.
“Everybody uses bullying as a blanket term now. We don’t want to see it used if it is not bullying,” she said. “We hear from parents that, ‘My child’s school isn’t doing anything about it.’
“The point is if it meets the criteria and it affects a student, we’re going to get involved. We have to. In the case in Lakeland, that girl faced intimidation that was relentless and wouldn’t stop.”
According to the state statute, and in further definition repeated by the Osceola school district, unwanted behaviors that can be bullying include but aren’t limited to teasing, social exclusion, threats, intimidation, stalking, theft, harassment of a sexual, religious or racial nature, public or private humiliation or physical violence.
The state statute was recently amended to include cyberbullying, any bullying act that is not done in person but transmitted via technology. The school district’s policy had to be amended in turn. The result is a policy that says that school officials can act on a incident that happens out of school but affects what students do (or don’t do) on a school campus.
“If it happens at home, we urge parents to call law enforcement, since it’s out of jurisdiction. But if it reaches the point that a student is afraid to come to school, we can then act on it.”
All of this can be a lot for concerned parents to digest. But they are not their children’s only advocates, Gasiorowski said, as every school campus in the county, including charter schools, has a trained designee to enforce bullying guidelines for students who feel have become victimized can
“And I have trained them. We do it every year,” Gasiorowski said. “I think it’s huge that people, especially parents, know that.”