Judith Rainone once served the Hillsborough School District as a principal, running schools such as Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace and Valrico Elementary.
During those 20 years, the schools were a small city, and she was the mayor. I know because my two sons attended Valrico during most of her tenure there.
Now the mayor is a judge. A year ago, Rainone became the district's director of administration. Her duties include chairing the violence prevention committee, which deals with the age-old problem of bullying.
"I get calls every day from principals who say, 'Hey, how do I handle this situation,' " said Rainone, 59. "I'm called Judge Judy in the county now. I never thought I would be in this seat doing this, but it's interesting."
And challenging. Rainone heads the committee in the wake of high-profile bullying allegations at Walker Middle School. And while bullying is not a new problem, it has become more complex with new technology giving students uncommon ways to be cruel and a new state law requiring school districts to be more engaged.
"With our kids, they have a whole new avenue — things you and I never dealt with," said Rainone, who lives in Brandon. "It's a different world out there. You think of A Christmas Story and the gruff kid, the one who's going to sock you in the eye.
"But bullying nowadays can be a little more devious because it can be intentional, and it can be direct or indirect. You can get somebody else to do it or you can do it online, the cyber bullying."
That's why everyone in the Hillsborough County School District from principals to teachers to cafeteria workers is undergoing training to learn how to handle the complexities. It's not as simple as separating the tall kid from the smaller student and sending them off to class. It's a deft touch that has to take into account dynamic emotions such as power, ego and embarrassment.
"How do you help that child save face, and how do you also help the one that's doing the bullying save face?" Rainone explained. "You can't say 'I'm sorry you're short, and I'm sorry he said that. But it's okay that you're short.' That's demeaning to that child, but sometimes we forget what we're saying."
The training, however, goes beyond moments of intervention. It also covers the importance of parental involvement, the effect bullying has on bystanders and its impact on school crime. The training also includes the definition of bullying, an aggressive, repeated behavior that also involves an imbalance of power.
The media's spotlight on bullying intensified after the Walker Middle case, but Rainone said the district's renewed efforts began even before she got her new position. That's because in the spring of 2008, the state Legislature passed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act, which prohibits bullying, cyber bullying and harassment of any student or employee of a public school.
Cape Coral mother Debbie Johnston pushed for the law after her son committed suicide in 2005 because of bullying he faced at school. Thoughts of the tragedy are never far from Rainone's mind as she pushes to raise awareness among school personnel, parents and students.
Those who believe they have encountered a bullying problem have four ways to report the incident: the district's online system, a hard copy form attainable at schools, calling Crime Stoppers or texting Crime Stoppers.
Rainone said the online method has been most effective to date, and it aids the district in compiling data on bullying for the state Department of Education. Nearly 200 incidents have been reported through December, but Rainone said most have not met the bullying standard.
Along with awareness, her biggest challenge may be changing the mind-set of students who choose to stay silent about problems. She said ideally, every student should have at least one adult at the school they can go to with concerns.
"Kids don't like to be snitches," Rainone said. "But when you're telling somebody that somebody else is hurting, that's not being a snitch."
Training will continue with school personnel, and Rainone said every school has a preventive program to heighten awareness among students. School principals have a variety of programs at their disposal and each chooses the one that best meets the needs of their particular school.
In the end, she expects the district to meet a basic expectation.
"Every child has a right to be safe, and every parent has a right to know their child is safe at school," Rainone said. "So far, because we have in our policy that you have to involve the parents of both parties … most of the parents are satisfied with the results.
"They don't care whether you call it bullying or inappropriate behavior, they just want it taken care of."
The judge has spoken.
That's all I'm saying.