The superintendent of schools in Pasco County, where one student shot himself to death and another is brain damaged from a suicide attempt, defended her efforts to fight bullying against complaints that official inaction led to the tragedies.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said the district doesn't have much of a bully problem because it steps in early, at the stage she described as teasing and taunting.
"We try to stop and provide interventions so that we don't get to the case of what bullying is in state law," she said.
"As soon as it comes into our walls we are stopping it. We are putting interventions into place because safety is an important factor in Pasco County schools."
That view, relatives and friends of the two students say, contradicts their experience. They say Kiefer Allan, 15, fatally shot himself and Zachery Gray, 17, hanged himself only after school bullies subjected them to chronic torment.
Fiorentino said she can't discuss these cases because the district faces a possible lawsuit and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, which was triggered by complaints from Zachery's parents.
"I will tell you our hearts go out to those families," Fiorentino said. "Our whole district is saddened by those families."
Zachery's father, Tony Gray, said, "They're just in denial about it."
Added Jane Doucette, Keifer's mother, "There are so many of these cases going on; how much longer do we have to wait?"
Gray and Doucette said the school district isn't following the reporting requirements laid out in Florida's Jeffrey Johnston Act.
The law, enacted in 2008 to address bullying violence, requires schools to track bullying incidents, act on reported cases to prevent school-related violence or suicides, and promptly notify parents when bullying occurs.
With 67,000 students in 89 schools, Pasco reported only 28 bullying incidents last year. That's a rate just one-third the statewide average, the Florida Department of Education noted in a memo to the district in November.
"Higher numbers often indicate better reporting," the memo said.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties each reported about 500 bully-related incidents last year, and Palm Beach County said it had more than 1,800.
Fiorentino said her district has 850 complaints on record now but doesn't believe they all rise to the level of bullying, calling them instead "teasing and taunting."
She attributes the disparity in Pasco to smaller district enrollment and confusion statewide about the definition of bullying.
"The state is working on the definition," Fiorentino said. "They are in the process of redefining it."
That's news to the Education Department, spokeswoman Jamie Mongiovi said.
Bullying is defined in Florida law as "systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students."
No effort is under way by the department to change that nor does Mongiovi see a need to do so.
"School districts already have the guidance and structure in place to report all types of bullying incidents, including teasing and taunting," Mongiovi said.
A News Channel 8 investigation spurred by parents' complaints revealed that half of all Pasco schools – 44 of them – didn't report an instance of bullying, fighting, harassment, threats or 20 other so-called safety indicators last year.
This week, Fiorentino was at a loss to explain why.
"I don't have the data in front of me," she said. "I'd have to look at that and I'll have to honestly have to get back to you on that answer."
In its November memo, the Education Department's Office of Safe Schools singled out one Pasco high school campus.
"Wesley Chapel HS reported only 25 incidents which appear to be low when considering the concerns raised by calls we have received in the Office of Safe Schools," the memo said.
Sunlake High, where Kiefer attended, and Zephyrhills High, Zachery's school, reported no incidents of bullying last year, when the suicide attempts occurred.
"Go ask my son if he wasn't bullied," said Zachery's mother, Sissie Gray. "Go ask all the other parents that are dealing with this how they feel about all of this."
After News Channel 8's reports, parents responded with bullying stories of their own.
Petite Scarborough said after her daughter received a beating from a bully in April in the hallways of Wiregrass Ranch High, the girl was too scared to return to classes and is now receiving anxiety therapy on her doctor's orders. Scarborough drove her daughter back to school last week to take her final exams so she wouldn't fail.
"She has a right to an education," Scarborough said. "And she has a right to feel safe in the environment where she's getting an education."
Another parent, Victor Rivera, told the Pasco school board Tuesday that his 16-year-old daughter suffered a bully attack at Wiregrass Ranch in April.
Rivera said it happened after he came to the campus at 7:30 one morning to tell administrators a female bully had come to his home the night before with a half-dozen other teens to beat up his daughter.
The girl told him she would attack his daughter at school the following day if she couldn't get to her that night.
Yet despite the alert Rivera gave an assistant principal, and the assurances he received, his daughter was attacked hours later in a hallway. She was taken to a hospital with a concussion, a broken wrist and a black eye, he said.
"All they could tell me is we can't watch 2,000 kids and 64 acres," Rivera said. "And I said, 'All you had to do is watch one.' "
"That has me very concerned," Fiorentino told News Channel 8. "I haven't had a chance to call the principal back, but that will be a call we'll be making. I haven't heard of that case until this morning. That was the first time I heard that."
Rivera later showed News Channel 8 printouts of Facebook threats that indicate the bully still isn't through with his daughter.
"She sent my daughter Sunday another Facebook threat telling her they're going to put her in a body bag," Rivera said. "Her and another girl, now."
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