Pasco schools addressing bully problem; tragedies still linger - WFLA News Channel 8

Pasco schools addressing bully problem; tragedies still linger

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Zach Gray with his nephew, November 2013. Zach Gray with his nephew, November 2013.
Zach Gray before he tried to hang himself in 2011 Zach Gray before he tried to hang himself in 2011
PASCO COUNTY, FL (WFLA) - It's been two years since an 8 on Your Investigation exposed a disturbing lack of effort by the Pasco School District leaders to prevent bully behavior, or even acknowledge that it exists.

School Superintendent Kurt Browning says that's changed substantially since voters elected him as Pasco's new school chief one year ago. "I said then and I will say now, we have a bullying problem," Browning said. "It's like turning a steamship."

Related content:  Battle Against Bullying

But not everyone is convinced the "steamship" Browning describes has turned all that much since he took over the school district helm. 

Tony and "Sissie" Gray are the parents of Zach Gray, former Zephyrhills senior who is brain-damaged from an attempted hanging two and a half years ago. The Grays say their son tried to kill himself due to what they describe as relentless "gay baiting" at school, even though he wasn't gay.

They say Zephyrhills teachers knew about the tormenting of their son, but did little to stop it.

"My whole life has changed because they didn't do their job to protect my son," said Sissie Gray.

Browning said he can't discuss what happened to Zach Gray because the Gray family has put the district on notice that it plans to sue for damages so it has become a matter of pending litigation. 

But Browning, who attended Pasco schools along with his own children, did become glassy-eyed when 8 On Your Side brought up Zach's attempted hanging and the impact that tragedy has had on his family. 

There is also sad legacy of Kiefer Allan that we exposed in our investigation two years ago. He was a straight-A freshman at Sunlake High School when two seniors pounced on him one day during the bus ride home and threatened to rape him.

Hours after that humiliation in front of other students, which was captured on a bus surveillance camera, Allan shot himself.
His mother says she thinks about her son every day. If he had survived, Kiefer would have turned 18 this week.

Related content: Signs a child is being bullied

Browning said his staff is implementing an aggressive prevention strategy as well as responding quickly to bully behavior in the schools when it occurs to keep such horrible tragedies from re-occurring.

"Unlike the prior administration, we're not going to just sit idly by and say things aren't happening," Browning said. "Because they are."

Browning's staff organized a kickoff rally last June called "Together We Stand--Pasco Youth and Community Summit" to ccrystallizethe issues, hear form stakeholders and provide the basis of his anti-bully strategy. About 150 people attended and supplied the inspiration for some of the programs the Pasco School District now has in place.

Related content:  Pasco superintendent defends anti-bullying efforts

For starters, there are much easier ways to report bully behavior and an improved system for responding to incidents. Two years ago, when 8 On Your Side was trying to find out the scope of the problem, the school district had reported only 28 bully incidents for the 2010-2011 school year in a district populated by more than 60,000 students.

In the first three months of this school year, Browning's staff has investigated 175 complaints. He says that's because his staff is far more diligent in tracking the problem, not because the actual number of incidents has soared more than six fold as the numbers might seem to indicate.

One sign that Browning's efforts might be paying off can be found at Weightman Middle School, where administrators, teachers and staff are leading the way.

Weightman requires parents and students to sign a no-bullying "contract" when they register for school, and recently turned a one-day bully awareness campaign into a weeklong event. Guidance counselor Sharon Morris said Weightman's adult staff increasingly embraced the idea as the week wore on.

"A couple of them said it felt like a revival at church," Morris said. "It just keeps getting better and better."

That awareness week has now evolved into "Incentive" days when kids with good grades and good behavior--specifically, no bullying--get to forgo one of their class periods have a party at the end of the day with music and dancing in the outside courtyard . 

Much of the schools anti-bully effort is spearheaded now by students like eighth grader Robert McLaughlin
McLaughlin recently lead a "mix it up" event in the cafeteria, in which Weightman's students were encouraged to sit with kids they don't normally socialize with to break down social barriers and bridge cultural differences.

"I guess we’re just trying to get the message out that bullying is not a good thing," said McLaughlin.

Morris said she accidentally discovered a sign that message is getting out. During a recent sweep of Weightman's cafeteria, someone on the school staff found a crumpled piece of paper containing a student's doodle that simply said: "No Bullying." That made Morris smile.

Still, the legacy of the school district's laxity in past years still haunts the Gray family. Just about every day Zach's parents repeat pretty much the same cycle: sleep--work--driving 60 miles to sit by Zach in the Largo facility where he receives around the clock medical care.

"He gives me a big smile when he sees me and he’ll still cry when you leave." said Tony Gray. "It’s hard."

Sissie Gray said she now has serious health issues due to the stress and Tony Gray has suffered a stroke that often diverts him to his own medical appointments and says he can no longer drive the distance by himself to be by his son.

Gray says anyone who wants to understand what bullying means should look no further than his family. 

"Come follow us for a day," Gray said. "You might want to stop it then."

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