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.


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