Battling bullying in Manatee schools

srocco@bradenton.comSeptember 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- Fabian Ramirez stood alone in the middle of Braden River Middle School's quiet gymnasium, half-shouting into his mic like a fired-up basketball coach.

"You know what they say to themselves?" he preached. "'If I'm not here anymore, there's nothing that can happen. If I no longer exist, then neither does the hurt.' "

About 500 students sat captivated on the bleachers. Some of them had heard about Rebecca Ann Sedwick, the 12-year-old girl from Lakeland who killed herself earlier this month after brutal online bullying from her sixth-grade classmates.

"Then they commit suicide -- to the point that we created a word because it's so popular," Ramirez said. "You know what it is?


• • •

In the wake of Sedwick's death, Ramirez's rousing talk comes just in time. Excessive

use of social media websites -- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram -- among middle and high school students has become a catalyst for aggressive bullying, a nation-wide problem.

"It's not a bad issue here, but it can be, so we're trying to be pro-active about it," said Kim Zenon-Richardson, an assistant principal at Braden River Middle.

The Parent-Teacher Organization at Braden River voted to have Ramirez, a motivational speaker specializing in middle and high school bullying, drug abuse and drop outs, come to the school to talk about bullying Thursday morning.

"We wanted to give the kids the tools they need to deal with these challenges because they're going to have the challenges, but some of them don't know how to deal with that," Zenon-Richardson said.

"We thought the best way to ... teach students how to be self-assertive and to deal with these issues is to bring someone like him here to help them make good choices, teach them the importance of education, and of course bullying is always a big issue."

If a student is being bullied in school or on social media websites, they should let any adult in their school know, and then that adult is to alert administration and the school's bullying point of contact, said Skip Wilhoit, coordinator of Safe Schools and drop-out prevention and student intervention specialist for the Manatee School District.

After news of the Lakeland girl's suicide broke, Wilhoit sent information to each school reminding them to make sure students know where to report bullying and to be aware of the warning signs.

There is a link on the district website where students can anonymously report bullying if they're afraid to reveal information in person.

"That's why we have this anonymous website. They don't have to leave their name. They can leave as little information as they want," Wilhoit said.

"Only 10 percent of bullying situations get reported to adults," he added.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many cases of bullying occur in Manatee schools because many cases aren't reported, said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Middle and high schools are staffed with school resource officers, and students should feel free to address their concerns to those officers, Bristow said.

Levi Waxler, an eighth-grader at Braden River, said he sees many cases of "verbal taunting" but rarely anything physical.

His peer Valerie Hale, also in eighth grade, sees excessive bullying online, in classrooms, in the hallways.

"I see kids that don't have many friends and the more popular people that kind of bring them down," she said. "They just think, 'Oh, there's an easy target.' I've been bullied myself so I know how it is.' "

• • •

"You know what suicide is?" Ramirez asked the Braden River Middle students. "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. That's what suicide is."

Ramirez discussed the dangers of online bullying, how everything posted on the Internet is there forever, and how there can be serious repercussions for bullying someone using social media -- including prison time.

"I would go home tonight and delete anything that you said to wrong someone and then start fresh," Ramirez told the crowd.

Ramirez shared his own stories about being bullied at a tender age. He'd skip math and science because his abuser, a kid named Jose, was in those classes. But Ramirez never told an adult, fearing that somebody would hurt him or his family. Right when he was about to lose hope, one teacher helped him boost his grades and find peace.

A quick solution, he learned, is to be consistently nice to someone who is mean to you.

"If you've ever been hurt in your life, I'm here to tell you that it's not your fault," he said. "And if you're going through it right now, I'm telling you it's only temporary. You can get through it."

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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