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Florida Schools Strengthen Bullying Policies Ahead of House Bill

All of Florida's K-12 school districts are now required to review bullying and harassment policies more frequently to ensure they are completely comprehensive and up-to-date.

On Monday, Florida House Bill 229 passed, requiring districts to review the policies at least every three years.  This would allow districts to update policies, accounting for new and evolving forms of bullying, like cyberbullying.

HB 229 strengthens Florida Statute 1006.147, which requires school districts to adopt policies that follow those of the Florida Department of Education. However, the statute doesn't require districts to review the policies.

In some districts, school boards already review policies frequently.

In Marion County, for example, the bullying and harassment policy is reviewed yearly, said Marion County Public Schools spokesperson Kevin Christian.

He said the district’s bullying policy is in the student code of conduct, which is sent to students’ parents each year.  The policy is reviewed frequently to be comprehensive and up-to-date.

Suwannee County's policy is also reviewed yearly, said Elizabeth Simpson, the Suwannee County School Board's exceptional student education and services director.

“I think [bullying is] something that has to be taken seriously,” she said. “I think it’s something that happens in all communities.”

Suwannee complies with the guidelines outlined in both the 1006.147 statute and the HB 229’s proposed revision, Simpson said.

To comply with the two, school districts need to define and prohibit bullying and harassment, describe that behavior and create consequences for violators, according to the Florida Legislature.

The Suwannee County School Board last revised its bullying policy in January 2014, according to  the board's website.

HB 229 comes as Florida's school suspension rates are at a three-year low. According to Florida Department of Education data, only 371,427 students were suspended during the 2013-14 school year. This is 17,488 fewer than during the 2012-13 school year and 54,259 fewer than 2011-12.

At Marion County's Belleview Middle School, Dee Westfall, assistant principal for curriculum, said she thinks part of the drops could be attributed to early intervention for bullies.

Parents are educating their children about what bullying is.  Because of this, she said students are reporting instances of bullying sooner, and the consequences are severe enough that a verbal or written warning suffices.  Overall, that means fewer referrals for students.

Westfall said it’s important that students know what bullying is: a repeated, consistent action of harassment.

“Just because somebody said something mean to them on the bus doesn’t mean it’s bullying,” she said.

But bullying in school settings is still a major and prevalent problem, said Bob Knotts, the founder of the Humanity Project, a Florida anti-bullying organization.  By reviewing bullying policies more frequently, he believes schools will be able to make policies more relevant to changing communities.
“We find ways to tweak and improve,” he said.

Ansley is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.