Bullying in Schools: Local parent speaks out

Savannah Vasquez

When Michele Raney got a desperate text message from her 6th grader during school hours saying that he just couldn’t take it anymore, she knew it was time to take action.

“It’s been going on since the 5th grade,” said Raney, whose son attends Destin Middle School. “My son is a smaller kid and he’s really smart, and so he’s had a lot of friends pick on him because he’s smart. But it’s not just being picked on; it’s aggressive, ugly and non-stop. The kids come at him every day, every day, every day.”

Raney said that it wasn’t until middle school that her son faced bullying of this magnitude, but now it has gotten so bad that he has developed illnesses, lost interest in school and she fears for his physical and emotional well being.

“He’s been kicked in the head with a volleyball, grabbed, thrown down, attacked on the bus for not giving someone his food, called all sorts of really bad names in the locker room and beat-up in front of every body,” she said, listing off ways her son has been bullied just this year. “What ends up happing is that he comes home every day and he is full of anxiety, has stomach problems, eating problems, and sleeping problems. He’s so distraught that he is thinking he doesn’t want to live anymore, and he’s only 12.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 3 students are victims of bullying within their schools. That equals 28 percent of students in the U.S. that are dealing with aggressive, negative behaviors targeted against them every day. Further research released on stopbullying.gov, states that bullying is most prevalent in youth during middle school years.

“Middle schoolers are still learning about themselves, they are still children,” said Raney, who also has a Master’s Degree in Public Health. “It is a very crucial time in their development and when they are bullied they get more and more isolated.

Raney said that after a year of dealing with constant bullying against her son, she brought the issue to the attention of the principal, teachers and administrators at DMS, but in her eyes, not much has changed. Now, she said, she will take matters into her own hands.

“Okaloosa County and Destin Middle School are not immune to it at all,” she said. “I don’t think people are aware that it’s as bad as it is and it’s happening right here in our county.”

DMS Principal Charlie Marello said that he cannot speak to the rate of bullying in comparison to other Okaloosa County Schools, but when incidents occur in his school he said they have policies in place and act, “appropriately, swiftly and with a heavy hand.”

“We follow to the letter the school district policy prohibiting bullying and harassment,” he said. “It absolutely will not be tolerated, the policy is very specific with a step-by-step process. We certainly take each case very seriously.”

Marello said that this year in particular, the school has rolled out a proactive element by way of weekly school-wide video and dialog pieces that he helped create.

“This year, what I believe to have been a big help is we have an additional 30 minutes that we use twice a week for a character education piece on our Splash T.V. program,” he said. “What we do is a theme for a month on a specific character with ‘what if’ scenarios. Teachers then have a question and answer time and it’s really opened up some good dialog with the students.”

Marello added that the first three topics targeted were tolerance, diversity and kindness.

“I think this stuff comes up a lot in middle school and if you trace it back to the root of the issue with bullying, it often lies somewhere along those three traits,” he said.

“We wanted to get out in front of bullying, at the beginning of the year by addressing these themes with our students.”

As for Raney, she told The Log that in the near future she plans to partner with the schools efforts by creating an anti-bullying parent’s group and a bullying awareness curriculum with hopes to eventually implement it within all Okaloosa County schools.

“I think the biggest thing is bringing awareness and getting the community involved,” she said. “It has to start with prevention, education and real consequences. I want to create a venue for parents to say ‘this is happening to my kid too.’ I’d also like to start engaging the schools and create an environment where we can start this conversation.”

To join in the conversation and connect locally with anti-bullying awareness groups check out Raney’s new online community at www.facebook.com/makesomenoise2015. 

Signs to look for in bullied children:

Unexplained Injuries

Frequent head and stomach aches or feigned illnesses

Changes in eating habits such as skipping lunch or binge eating

Trouble sleeping

Loss of interest in school or school activities

Sudden drop in grades or loss of self-esteem

Self-destructive behavior