Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

The Truth About Bullying in Florida’s Schools

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Austin Beaucage, 16, at his home in Key Largo, Fla. He doesn't want to go back to school after the summer break because he says there is too much school bullying.

Freshman Austin Beaucage has been picked on his whole life.

He’s small for his age and socially awkward.

But the bullying was never like last month at Coral Shores High School in Key Largo, Fla.

“Some senior locked me in a closet in my 6th period and he wouldn’t let me out,” he said.

“And I was banging on the door and then the other kids in the class were laughing.”

Austin, 16, speaks with his head down. His lips hardly move.

He says he was locked in the closet for most of the period.

According to his school district policy, this is not considered school bullying.

The Florida Department of Education has a very particular definition for bullying that most districts use.

It is “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress.”

Schools generally look for three criteria before they cry “bully.”

  1. There is an imbalance of power or a perceived imbalance of power.
  2. There is intent to cause harm or distress.
  3. The harassment is repeated over time.

That one word — repeated — may be keeping Florida’s school bullying numbers lower than they should be.

The high school senior who locked Austin in the closet had never done anything to him before.

Because it wasn’t repeated harassment, it couldn’t be counted as bullying under the school district policy.

Last year, only 6,107 cases in Florida schools qualified as bullying—or about 3 percent of all public school students in the state.

But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 31 percent of U.S. students say they are bullied.

Experts say Florida’s low numbers are likely due to differences in how districts classify bullying.

Courtesy of Sheri Leitch

Austin says his younger brother, Shayne Ijames, 13, was always the popular one.

School officials in Alachua County, for example, say if there’s ever a question about whether something is or isn’t bullying, they tend to choose a more serious classification — such as threatening a classmate — over bullying.

In Palm Beach County schools one out of every 95 students reported being bullied last school year.

Duval County reported just one bullying incident for every 4,700 students.

What Happens When Students Report Bullying?

Austin doesn’t usually tell his teachers about being bullied.

He goes to his younger brother, Shayne Ijames — A surfer with long blond hair who’s always been the popular one.

“He would never bully anyone,” Austin said. “He’s always stood up for people.”

But his little brother recently moved to live with his dad in Port St. Lucie.

So after being locked in his classroom closet, Austin confided in a school friend who took him down to the principals office to fill out a bullying report.

“We sat down and had an interview with the principal and then the principal just made me and the kid shake hands.”

Principal David Murphy says students treat each other badly all the time.

“A student treating another student unfairly or in a bad way does not necessarily classify itself as bullying because of the ongoing nature of a bullying relationship.”

- Coral Shores Principal David Murphy

“A student treating another student unfairly or in a bad way does not necessarily classify itself as bullying because of the ongoing nature of a bullying relationship.”

Murphy says his school has had zero reported instances of school bullying this year.

He says school administrators have not been able to prove the three criteria for bullying.

“Very often it’s not an aggressor and a victim but its two kids and they’re adolescents. They get into these kinds of things,” he said.

School policies protect students from being labeled a bully on their student record, until they have repeatedly shown characteristics of bullying.

“Does that make the person that was victimized feel that it isn’t going to happen again? No, it probably doesn’t,” Murphy said.

Austin says asking him to shake hands with his bully didn’t solve anything.

“I’m still never going to get over the fact that the kid locked me in the closet just because we shaked hands.” he said. “They should have suspended him.”

Bullying expert Trish Ramsey with the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment says the danger of this policy is students may not come forward again.

“Why would I want to tell anybody if I think they’re going to make me see this person again?,” she said. 

“And then I have to go through this charade. They say they’re sorry to me and I’m supposed to believe it. It doesn’t do anything empower the child who has been victimized.”

Rasmey says school officials need help identifying and addressing school bullying.

“School administrators are well-trained in the complexities that it takes to manage a school,” she said.

“Their training in relationships and managing mental health issues may not be as strong as managing the facilities, hiring teachers [and] watching over the curriculum.”

Austin said he regrets reporting that he got locked in the closet.

That night he and his mom, Sheri Leitch, got a call about Shayne—the younger brother.

Shayne had put a dog leash around his neck and hung himself in the kitchen.

Thirteen year old Shayne died.

“And I just started screaming and punching things because I was mad,” Austin said.

“Happy Funeral”

The family had no reason to suspect Shayne, the popular surfer, was ever bullied.

Until the next day.

His parents say an 8th grader at Shayne’s middle school sent a text message to Shayne’s cell phone.

According to his parents, it said: “happy funeral.”

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Austin and his mom, Sheri Leitch, look at pictures of Shayne Ijames who comitted suicide on May 2, 2012. The family suspects he was bullied by students at his school though school officials say there are no reports of bullying.

“I couldn’t imagine a child to have such meanness in them and evil,” Leitch said. “We lost a huge part of our life.”

Shayne’s friends told the family Shayne had been bullied by a group of 8th graders.

They called him gay because of his long hair, tripped him and threatened him on the school bus.

Southport Middle School officials say they have no reports of Shayne being bullied.

But his parents say just because there are no reports, doesn’t mean he wasn’t bullied.

Port St. Lucie detectives are investigating Shayne’s suicide.

They say no one has told them he was bullied.

Shayne’s dad, Michael Ijames, says Shayne was having trouble at school.

He was at risk of being held back a grade for a second time.

He would have been 14 years old and in the sixth grade.

“And then if there was bullying on top of that, I guess in the end it was too much pressure for him,” Ijames said.

“There have been so many kids on Facebook, in letters and through phone calls who said it was really bad. That the bullying was going on.”

Austin is convinced that text message, “happy funeral,” is proof his younger brother had a bully.

“And if I ever seen that kid he would have been dead by now.”

He says this without anger, quietly and with hurt in his voice.

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/alonsothepoet Alonso Menendez

    sad to see things have not changed here in florida since i was in high school 30 years ago. i was bullied on a daily basis. i remember going to the principal back in 7th grade and the result was that both of us got in trouble and i was told to try to get along. after which thye bullying got worse because i went to the principal. what i learned is that i can’t count on anyone to help me but myself and the system was not there to help me but rather bury the problem so it could be ignored. i never reported another incident again, despite the fact that the bullying continued until i got into college. under reporting of incidents will not go away until our school system takes this seriously and those who are bullied believe that they will not suffer the consequences of of reporting such actions.

  • A Mom Who Cares

    ^ This is why we unschool.  Florida schools were the pits when I and my siblings attended and they are still pathetic.  I could list out all the many infractions but what’s the point?  Florida isn’t going to correct this issue.  This article failed to mention the bullying from teachers as well.  Add principals onto the list!  I remember learning of my daughter being bullied in sixth grade so we called the school right away to report it.  The person answering the phones, a coach, told us to report it in the morning.  We did the very next morning.  The principal told both my daughter and I off telling us we were reporting the incident too late and my daughter was a wuss to be scared of the girl who threatened her.  She refused to take a report and refused to do anything about it.

    How about when my son was bullied by his kindergarten teacher and the school threatened me that if I pursued prosecution of her, they wouldn’t allow my daughter into the IB program nor my son into the gifted program.  Yea, that was his last day in kindergarten.  The district refused to let us change his school, too, so we learned to homeschool. 

    Just FYI, my kids have high IQ’s.  Even though the schools were nasty and refused to help with the many bullying issues, they also argued that we couldn’t remove the kids either.  My children always scored very high on their stupid FCAT test. (a pathetic test so I’m clueless why so many do poorly.)  The schools reasoning?  My kids are worth money and make their schools look better.

    The list of infractions in Florida’s public schools should be enough to just shut them down.  If they weren’t publicly funded, they would have gone out of business many years ago.

    NOTE TO PARENTS:  If your child isn’t enjoying his/her school experience, GET THEM OUT OF THERE!  Chances are, things aren’t as pretty as the schools would have you believe.  Education isn’t nearly is difficult to obtain as the schools would love you to believe.  There are tons of free resources available and happy children learn more, at a faster rate.  There is NOTHING that the school system provides that can’t be provided in a far healthier environment.

    Take the time to know you child, talk to your child.  If they are happy and thriving, good.  If not, find another path before we lose another child to this senseless sport of bullying.

    My prayers go out to Austin and his family.

    • Jay

       THANK YOU, for sharing what went on with your children.  We had a similar experience with our sixth grader and pulled her out and started homeschooling her, it is so reassuring to know we aren’t alone or off our rockers for taking her out of school.  She has blossomed and has started standing up for herself.

        It is so heartbreaking to see these stories and infuriating that there are so many of them.  If an adult can get fired or arrested for doing something shouldn’t it be considered bullying.

  • egillis

    Maybe the ‘closet’ event is not bullying under his school’s so-called policy but it sounds like a probable unlawful imprisonment and likely accomplished by an assault. Skip the school’s non-policy & go directly to the States Attorney Office.

  • Caring mom in Welleby

    Bullying is swept under the rug.

        The Broward County elementary school where my son endured bullying is an ‘A’ school with a polished (and conservative) reputation.  My son was so hurt and ashamed to admit that he experienced physical bullying /sexual abuse, that he didn’t tell me for almost 2 weeks after the abuse began his bullying. My son described to me how another male classmate would hit him on the bottom and/or scrotum while they would be in line traveling to and from their classroom.
    When I  reported the incidents to our school resource officer the next day, the officer acknowleded the agressor child and stated that he “… has trouble controlling himself…”.

        At the direction of the SRO, I then directed my son’s confessions to me to my son’s teacher. Without any response from her,  a week later I reached out to both the school counselor and principal, Their response was that that my child was being “problematic” and that “…there was no proof of the incidents”.

        The same afternoon that the school staff accused my son of ‘making up stories’, I learned from my son that the agressor child had been moved to another classroom. Noone at the county level had heard of the incident nor would they support me or my son helping to resolve the painful experiences.

        The school’s reputation is still intact. We left the school and never looked back.

    • Wiicki

       If only that worked….sigh

    • Wiicki

      We took the issues up the chain and never got help, either. 
      I have NO respect for the Florida school system.

    • StateImpact SG

      Caring mom in Welleby and A Mom Who Cares, Thank you for your comments. We appreciate you letting us know what is going on in your school districts. If you have any school other school related issues to share please get in touch with us at sgonzalez@stateimpact.org

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.weilerortega Karen Weiler-Ortega

    I live in Monroe County- This school principal was just charged by a subordinate in a sexual harassment case where he was suspended without pay for 2 weeks. This just happened, bet me the accuser will be suing both him and the district for not following through. – Our school district is a disgrace! The school board is fulll of finger pointers! The last elected superintendent was removed from office by the governor and found guilty of 3 felonies, his wife is serving 8 years for stealing over 250,000.00 from the school district. The list of cronyism and poor judgment and over inflated salaries and made up administrative positions ,,,and now this. In your face mismanagement of a child who called out for help and was brushed aside. I’m so ready to oust the entire school board come election time!

    • Mowf

      This principal was not charged with anything. Get you facts straight. Gheeze

  • Harriet Tubman

    As a person who underwent a K-12 education in Florida, I now realize that the school administrators themselves were the most prevalent bullies in the hierarchy. They constantly handed out pointless short term punishments to fulfill their own egos for benign obstructions when real issues like bullying and poor teaching were continuously occurring.

  • Former Student

    Growing up as the only Indian kid in a small Florida town (Class of 2000), I’m really sad to see that nothing has changed.  I will never forget the first (and only) time I went for help to school administrator because two kids were bullying me.  

    His response “Are you sure it was those two boys?  I know their parents!”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.weilerortega Karen Weiler-Ortega

    I live in Monroe County- This school principal was just charged by a subordinate in a sexual harassment case where he was suspended without pay for 2 weeks. This just happened, bet me the accuser will be suing both him and the district for not following through. – Our school district is a disgrace! The school board is fulll of finger pointers! The last elected superintendent was removed from office by the governor and found guilty of 3 felonies, his wife is serving 8 years for stealing over 250,000.00 from the school district. The list of cronyism and poor judgment and over inflated salaries and made up administrative positions ,,,and now this. In your face mismanagement of a child who called out for help and was brushed aside. I’m so ready to oust the entire school board come election time!

    • Mowf

      This principal was not charged with anything. Get you facts straight. Gheeze

  • PGuest

    I’m wondering if things are actually getting “worse” or if more attention is being called to bullying than in decades past. Someone below commented “sad to see things haven’t changed in 30 years,” and my dad told me when he was a teenager he slept with a shot gun by his bed he was bullied so bad (this is the 60s). Maybe the suicides are calling more attention from society about this? I’ve heard things are getting less disciplined in schools (from the teachers, admins etc) but sometimes I wonder…maybe parents and teachers need to discipline more, and maybe they need to talk to their (apparently suicidal? you don’t didn’t notice anything wrong with your kid by this point?) children and tell them the people who bully are just ayy-holes and in the long run they will end up much more successful than these jerks and actually instill some self-confidence in their kids? Everyone gets bullied at some point. Do people even talk to their kids anymore?

    • HB

      WOW – - Really?

    • http://www.facebook.com/alonsothepoet Alonso Menendez

      i’m the one who said “sad to see things haven’t changed in 30 years,” and while i don’t think that things in the school have changed, i do believe society has changed as evidenced by all the attention that bullying has garnered as of late. if you haven’t seen the documentary “bully” i highly suggest it as this is the first time i’ve seen anything that even approaches my experiences in high school. because of this i am hopeful that maybe the conditions in the school will change. as far as the parents noticing anything wrong with the kid, you must understand the level of shame and fear associated with someone who is undergoing that situation. what transpired to me throughout those yers was far more than teasing, it was a physical and emotional assault and abuse that i underwent for 5 years. i would do anything to keep my parents from finding out. there is a feeling of hopelessness where you believe noone can help and anything anyone does will make it worse as the school just buries the incident and so it seems noone can stop it because the bullies will always be there tomorrow, enjoying the support of the other kids and making me pay for the attempt. under these conditions suicide starts to seem as a viable solution. whether this is rational or not, this is what’s relevant as it is what is in the mind of the one being bullied. i have been told by people that they would never have allowed that to happen to them and i made myself a victim. i say they were never in the situation i was in and they are approaching the situation of a teenager with the mind of an adult. aside from which, i see it the same as a woman who was raped “asking for it”. one more thing of note that leads me to believe things may change, is that over the years my former tormenters have reached out to me apologizing for the things they did. i will say here what i have told them, i let go of that years ago. i had to just so i could move on with my life. so they had my forgiveness was given long ago and it’s time they forgive themselves and whatever guilt they may feel they should use as a reminder as they raise their own kids and teach them to be better than they themselves were.

      • PGuest

        I’m sorry to hear of your plight Alonso. I was teased a lot when I was younger but never relentlessly and i had a good clique of nerdy friends too. 

        One quote I will leave everybody with:  
        “Kids of today cross their legs, misbehave and disrespect their elders.” ~Socrates, VI BC

        • anonymous

          really??!

          • http://www.facebook.com/alonsothepoet Alonso Menendez

            really

    • Coral

      Parents definitely need to do their part, not only for the bullies, but for the victims, too. One reason a lot of cases of bullying end in suicide or homicide is because the victim doesn’t know how to properly stand-up for themselves and talk about the problems (they just let them ferment). My son has just finished Kindergarten, and was bullied all year by 2 boys. He would tell me of every incident, and I would report them to the teacher. I let my son know what to say to those kids in response to their ridicule so he doesn’t feel helpless. But I also told my son that what they’re doing is bullying, so that he doesn’t think that what they’re doing is acceptable and, God forbid, start treating OTHER kids in the same fashion. 

    • StateImpactJOC

      PGuest,

      There is some debate about that. This piece argues increased awareness of bullying has led to increased concern about it, though federal statistics show children are safer at school: http://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/2012/04/02/school-bullying-may-not-be-as-big-a-problem-as-you-think/.

      Another issue to consider is that cyber bullying leaves a trail (texts, phone calls, Facebook messages) so there may be more evidence of bullying than ever.

  • Coral

    What I think is ridiculous is that the school will not punish a kid for locking someone in a closet, but had he reported it to POLICE, the bully could have been arrested for False Imprisonment. WAY TO GO, SCHOOL SYSTEM. Great way to teach kids that there are *consequences* for their actions!

  • Guest

    1.  As a mental health professional and school district administrator,  I am disappointed that NPR ran a story about a youth suicide without
    providing any referral information, such as 1-800-SUICIDE, for people in crisis. 
    2.  While a behavior may not meet the definition of “bullying” specified by state statute, it still needs to be addressed.  If we focus only on “bullying” we miss the bigger picture of uncivil behavior (teasing, taunting, threats, harassment, battery, physical fighting, etc.) that can absolutely destroy a school’s climate.  At the extreme end, exposure to a pattern of bullying or harassment increases risk for depression and anxiety, which are risk factors for suicide.  I think schools can mess up by ignoring the forest for the trees, focusing on catching and punishing individual perpetrators, rather than building a positive support network for ALL students. 
    I implore any student who is having a problem with bullying or other peer behaviors to reach out to an adult at school AND an adult at home.  If the first person you tell doesn’t help you, tell someone else!  If you are feeling depressed, please talk to someone like a parent, school counselor, psychologist, social worker, or nurse.  There IS help available and it DOES get better.
    3.  Parents need to be cautious consumers of media – there is a lot of irresponsible reporting out there regarding bullying and youth suicide.  Contact a mental health professional if you have concerns about your child.  Also, please be open to hearing what the teachers have to say.  Sometimes, the situation is not one-sided and your child may even be the one instigating or picking on other kids!  However, if you feel that someone at the school is blowing off your concerns, call that person’s supervisor, the superintendent, or even the Florida Department of Education if needed.

    • Wiicki

       ”However, if you feel that someone at the school is blowing off your
      concerns, call that person’s supervisor, the superintendent, or even the
      Florida Department of Education if needed.”

      Did all that and all we got was the threat that if we pursued the issue, that they could conveniently ‘lose’ my children’s IEP’s therefore preventing my daughter’s admission into the IB Program and preventing my son from ever entering the Gifted program. With a side note of ‘after all, it’s a five year old’s word against a tenured teacher!’

      Pretty system you have there!

      That was years ago, so recently I checked out the school again. I was curious as my son is now of age to attend high school and is interested in engineering.  So I asked what would be required for him to take some of the classes or possibly get into the program. 

      Would you like to know what the school told me??

      They told me that ‘HOME SCHOOLED KIDS’ are a waste on society and they never amount to anything.  They went on to tell me that BRIGHT TEENAGERS who have been HOME SCHOOLED can only talk about being smart but can’t show anything and it would be a waste of everyone’s time for them to bother to enroll him and no way could he be admitted into ANY of their advanced programs.

      …Good thing I didn’t waste my time explaining to them that we UNSCHOOL him as I doubt she could have handled it!

      OH!  My favorite part was when she went off telling me about her son who had gone through the public system and what a failure he became in college!  I was amazed she used him for reference on any level, but she did. 

      I thanked her for her information and informed her we would stick with our original plan of just allowing him to attend early college and once again, she pulled a 180 and said, “Well, if you are going to put him in early college, you need to do that through us!  Then you won’t have to buy the books!” 

      Sigh….she was completely clueless on how the system even works…

      P.S.  This is just one of many stories I could tell you of the failure of schools.  Too bad I can’t tell you of many successes.  I know few people who have positive thoughts about the years they attended Florida schools.

  • quibix

    Dear God in Heaven, why haven’t we got PAST this kind of thing by this time?!  Hasn’t the, “It Gets Better”, message been driven home?  I’m gay, myself, and had scrapes with homophobes; I’ve also considered eating a gun, but not over those encounters.  Back to the point, I wish Shayne, Tyler, Jamie & etc had at least called someone (including me), before doing something rash and/or irreversible.

  • michael

    Moving forward on bullying and other issues is impossible when both teachers & administrators start-off facing the wrong direction entirely!

    None will answer correctly when asked what their number one job is as a teacher/administrator! – Madness!

    This is the root of your problems… face the right way and solutions will appear! Just have to look! :)

    Students have no internal body-part to “snap-shut-off” their “child-ness” once in classroom!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWMHE9YqU0A&feature=colike

    Inside every Student is a Child Yet Teachers Believe SCHOOLS must be PARENT(ING)-FREE ZONES! http://youtu.be/5phuJXzXckE

  • Rene’ Vojnovic

    How can we change Florida law to include bullying as child abuse? After all, that’s what it ACTUALLY is! Child abuse laws are already set and strict and they don’t care if the abuser is an adult or a juvenile and they don’t care how many times it’s happened…it’s abuse to a child!
    After the Penn State investigation, Florida revised child abuse laws. Basically, every adult is considered a reporter and the penalties for NOT reporting have increased to heavy fines and/or 3rd degree felony charges. THIS is what it will take for school teachers, staff and faculty to report EVERY abusive incident instead of leaving the adult issue of “reporting” to a child who later suffers more abuse and/or retaliation for reporting.
    If anyone can point me in the direction to make this happen, I’m willing to do the work and as long as it takes! I simply cannot allow another precious life to be taken because the child felt completely defeated.
    Please feel free to contact me.
    Rene’ Vojnovic, Child Advocate & Guardian ad Litem
    Hillsborough County/Florida -Thirteenth Judicial Circuit
    E-mail: GAL.ReneVo@gmail.com

  • JA

    I live in FL too, I must say FL schools and their policies sucks ! I got bullied all in elementary school and a lot in middle school, by a whole bunch of kids at once. Now that I’m in HS, it’s not as bad but I had one bully (of course according to their policy). But still even when it’s not their definition of bullying… it hurts.

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