A weekend interview with ...
... Debbie Johnston, a Cape Coral teacher and mother who has tried for three years to convince Florida lawmakers to pass the "The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" (SB 790) in honor of her son, who committed suicide in 2005 after being harassed and bullied at school. Johnston spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the bill, her son, and her efforts to bring the legislation to the federal level, too. (AP photo, 2006)
Tell me why you're pushing so hard for this anti-bullying bill.
Because it's such a preventable death. People don't realize the scale on which this is occurring and because of lack of training even when we try to address it, we're addressing it in the schools incorrectly, mostly because we do what's always been done. And what the research has proven is that the methods we're using not only are ineffective, but they actually empower the bullying and they contribute to post-traumatic stress in the victim.
What specifically do you see that's wrong?
What we've done for so long is we've really concentrated on the victims and changing their behavior. You know. We tell them to laugh it off, ignore it. We teach them about resiliency and everything. And it really sends the message that they've done something wrong, something to deserve this. Because we just thought there are kids out there who are mean. But what the research shows is that the most significant factor contributing to bullies' bullying behavior is kids that have been bullied either at school or by an older sibling or, in most cases, in the home by a parent. And that children unless they're taught differently they have only one way of expressing pain, fear or frustration - and that is with anger. So they come to school angry. They push that off onto another kid and they temporarily feel better, they feel empowered.
It's kind of the case of the man forgetting to kiss his wife. So she fusses at the kid and the kid kicks the dog. It just travels down the line. What we've found is if we address the problems with the bully and treat the problem at that level and get some interventions in there ... then we stop it at the source.
What does the bill do specifically that you think is good?
Well, the bill really is not a punitive bill at all unless the parents absolutely refuse to get treatment for a child who poses a threat to himself or others. ... It states that every district will have in its code of conduct a section that defines bullying and that describes how it should be handled and meets the minimum standards that are outlined by the model that the Department of Education will come up with. A lot of districts already have codes of conduct that are already up to that standard or they go further. And as long as they are doing that then they've got a good handle on the bullying. But if they don't have those things in there, then it really ties the hands of the educators who are trying to deal with it.
In Jeffrey's case, it was never a secret. Everyone knew what was going on. And we attempted to address it. But we were so limited in what we could do because there was nothing about bullying in the code of conduct. It was looked at as a peer conflict, which was a minor offense on the same level as being tardy or chewing gum.
Tell us a little more about what did happen with your son.
In seventh grade, a classmate of his started, as so many times it started over a little girl. He told the little girl that Jeff (right) was kind of going with ... that Jeff had been laughing at her and said unkind things about her behind her back, which wasn't true. All Jeff knew was that she broke up with him and she wouldn't tell him why. We thought, these things come and go, nothing a little trip out for ice cream won't cure. I told him, girls get over these things really fast. But the next day it was like a lot more people.
And this boy who was behind it started calling our house and I heard Jeff on the phone. And you know your kids get this note in their voice when they're upset. So I picked up the phone and I heard this boy calling Jeff a stalker and telling him that he was ugly and making fun of him and threatening him. The smooth teacher, I said, 'Do you know who I am? I'm a teacher and just you wait.' I went right into the office the next day and went to the administration and they made the teachers aware of what was going on, and they pulled the kid aside and told him, knock it off and stuff. But there wasn't really anything they could do because it happened outside of school hours....
Then it was like, well, they didn't really do anything, ha ha ha. And Jeff told. So it got worse. They'd follow him around and make comments about him, write things, you know, slam books. And start rumors. He used to get chapped lips, and they'd call him the mummy or the crypt keeper. It didn't quit. It would die down for a while. And if the teacher said anything, it would go underground. It was pretty much confined to school hours, as far as I know, that first year through seventh grade. But there was one episode that year that was particularly painful.
Jeff had a project in the science fair and we were there. I was a science teacher. I was there to hand out trophies to the kids and that kind of stuff. And we were watching. And they were standing there in front of Jeff's project and making fun of him. And I looked, and the boy's mother was standing not 10 feet away. I kept expecting her to come over and say something, and she didn't. So I walked over and I said, do you know that's my son? And she just laughed in my face and said, of course I do. And just walked away laughing. And they sat there just a few rows away from us, just laughing the whole time.
So he dealt with it by internalizing? And how did you deal with it?
As a parent, I would go because I saw it. But at the same time I was a teacher, so I couldn't just go and whack the kid upside the head, you know. And I didn't want to make a scene because I didn't want to call embarrass Jeff and really call attention to it and behave unprofessionally. So I did what we've always been taught to do, which is I took the issue to the administrator and his teachers. They would go through the list of consequences and everything. But the thing was, there weren't really consequences for that. It was one person's word against another's. And in this case, I wasn't a teacher.
Had it been anyone else's child, I would have written him up in a New York minute. And I'd have been a teacher. But because I was a parent, my hands were sort of tied because according to the privacy laws, what's done to discipline a child, it violates the privacy rights if you let anyone else know. So I didn't ask and they didn't tell because that would have been violating school - we could have all been fired for it. ... I only knew a lot of what was going on because I was there at the school. But if your child is being bullied in school and it's not specifically outlined in the code of conduct that we inform you, we're not even allowed to tell you or the child what we're doing to protect them. ...
So now this bill would change that?
The bill specifically requires the school to keep both the student and the student's parents aware of what is being done for that student's protection and what consequences are in place for the student. Because they have a right to know for the protection of their child.
Because a lot of times bullying will escalate to the physical and you'll have a severely hurt child, like the young man in Tampa who had his arm broken to the point where it would end his hopes for a career as an adult. Or there's a little boy in Sarasota who currently there's a lawsuit in play because he had his whole face smashed in. I personally know a family in Sebring where their boy was just sucker punched on the bus. He was actually beaten up three times before the end of first period and suffered permanent brain damage. He actually flat-lined for 22 minutes because of the attack. And they're still trying to get some kind of closure to this situation, because these bullies, they're not facing any kind of consequences as a result.
You've been at this for three years and you have had problems getting as far as you have got right now, which is getting past the Senate Education committee. What do you think has been the holdup?
When we first lost Jeff I was absolutely taken aback to learn, I mean I was shocked, just plain downright shocked, to learn how often this happens. How many teenagers commit suicide. I mean, the suicide rate for this age group is over twice the homicide rate. I had worried about, you know, all parents should worry about, child molesters and predators and kidnappers and cyber terrorists. And you worry about getting hit by a car, and drugs, and skateboard accidents, and bicycle helmets and everything. When your child is twice as likely to die by his own hand as by anybody else's. ... And what they have found out is that bullying is a major factor in almost all of these instances.
So then why do you think the lawmakers were so unwilling to do anything about it? I saw getting Sen. Wise to say yes rather than to say, you're bullying me, was probably a major victory right there in itself.
(Laughs) It was. The first year when we went up there, of course when we lost Jeff and there was so much evidence and I took it to the detectives who investigated his death. We had three years of the boy recording online from his home computer exactly what he was doing to Jeff in school. And we had all the discipline referrals. Ladies Home Journal wrote an article about it two years before Jeff's death. Because district, the Ladies Home Journal was looking for someone who had been cyber-bullied and the district knew about Jeff so they matched them up and they wrote the article. So it wasn't a big secret. What I didn't find out at the time was there's no law against what he did. And you have a dead child. You have overwhelming evidence of responsibility. But just like in the case of Megan Meier, the little 13-year-old Missouri girl, everybody knows what happened. It's just not a crime because it hasn't been recorded, there's no law against it. The law hasn't caught up with the technology yet.
So when I first found out about all of this, I started to speak out about it because I am an educator. If you don't know about a problem you can't solve it. I think that first year people were looking at this as a totally isolated incident. And they were very sympathetic, but they didn't see it as we needed a law. But hopefully that gave a lot more people the courage to step forward and admit, yes, my child took his life as a result of bullying, too. Or my child is being bullied. There's a stigma almost like rape with being bullied. It's like you've done something wrong, when you haven't done anything wrong. The person with the wrongdoing is the bullies and the people who allow this to continue.
Do you think this has legs this year? Do you think it's going anywhere?
I think it's very very strong likelihood that it will pass. It passed the House of Representatives the first year unanimously, 116-0, and last year I believe it was 114 with one vote opposed. This year I expect it to go unanimous again, having talked to almost every member of the House. There is strong support in the House for the bill. And in the Senate, the only vote against the bill last year was Sen. Wise. That really came as a surprise because he had voted for it twice the year before. And I don't know what reservations he had. ...
I think this year people have really been speaking out, they've really spoken out. And the media has done exactly what the media should do. You know, not yellow journalism or anything, but honestly reporting these situations for the public good, so everybody says, yes, this is a problem, this is something that we really very easily can solve. The bill doesn't even really cost anything to implement. It's simply a matter of changing the wording to allow schools to do what the research tells us works. And that was the problem in Jeff's case. Everything that we traditionally did or were allowed to do, all the research showed contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and doesn't stop bullying. It actually increases it. And what stops it were all the things we weren't allowed to do because it wasn't addressed in the code of conduct.
And Jeff's bill does that. It's been recognized as the best anti-bullying bill in the country. It was the model for several other bills for other states last year, for their bills. And I just got back on the 7th of March from presenting it to Sen. Martinez, to ask him to sponsor Jeff's bill. With just a little bit of wording changing, they could take that forward as a federal bill and offer all the kids in the country that protection. ...
I really appreciate you sharing with me. I'm sorry you have to have a bill named this way. I hope that it works and something good comes out of all this.
That's our legacy to Jeff. (Tears up) Jeff was from the time he was little, people said, that little boy, you know, he's going to change the world. And, he always believed he could. He never retaliated. He never quit trying to make peace. Just, after three years of just horrendous abuse, he just gave up. And that's what he wrote in the notice. He wrote dreams were just better as dreams and the world couldn't change no matter how much he wished it could. And for all the other little boys out there and little girls who think that the world is just an unkind place that doesn't care and can't change, we want Jeff's bill to be a message of hope that we do care about our kids and no matter what it takes we're going to change things and we're going to make the world a better place.