Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Pasco schools consider tough bullying, bias policies after Zephyrhills teen's suicide attempt

An investigation into a 2011 bullying case at Zephyrhills High School has led the Pasco County school district to consider tougher policies on discrimination and sex-based harassment.

The School Board on Tuesday will decide whether to adopt the proposals as an agreement to end an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The federal review came after a complaint by the family of Zachary Gray, a student who attempted to commit suicide in May 2011 after alleged teasing, taunting and harassment by other students at Zephyrhills High.

Gray, then 17, did not succeed in hanging himself, but he suffered incapacitating injuries from the attempt. He remains unable to walk and talk, and in full-time medical care.

His family's lawyer, Robin Allweiss, notified the district of the family's intent to sue in March 2012. She said negotiations are ongoing. At the same time, the family made its complaint to the Office for Civil Rights, based on accusations of gender-related discrimination.

Gray, now 19, was called antigay slurs, she said, and was teased for his size, with some kids calling him "fat" and "girl" and "man boobs."

"He had one teacher he felt he could confide in," Allweiss said. "But nobody was helping him. Nobody was stopping it."

The pending agreement would require the district to take "all reasonable steps" to ensure students are not subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of their gender, and to respond to allegations of such harassment.

It would revise its bullying and harassment policies to state that "nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex stereotyping, even though not involving conduct of a sexual nature, may constitute a prohibited form of sex discrimination" that the district would address. The policies would be distributed to students, staff and parents.

The district also would update policies relating to investigations of this type of complaint. The superintendent would issue a formal public statement that the district does not tolerate gender-based harassment.

The agreement would include updates to the student code of conduct, improved tracking of complaints, training for staff on how to respond to allegations, and lessons for students on how to deal with the harassment and reporting problems.

While it was Gray's case that sparked this review, the Pasco school district has dealt with several high-profile bullying cases recently, including the suicides of Sunlake High freshman Kiefer Allan in January 2011 and Fivay High sophomore Jessica Laney last December. Mitchell High sophomore Chase Cristia became a voice for bullying victims earlier this year, after sharing her story of being beaten on her school bus in a videotaped attack posted on Facebook.

Allweiss said she was happy with the updated policies going to the School Board on Tuesday.

"This has to be done, not only here but all over the place," she said. "It's a shame that it takes something like (Gray's case) to happen for this outcome."

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he would advise board members to adopt the agreement "as a matter of compliance."

He said the district already had been headed in this direction, with updated policies in the works on bullying, harassment and related matters. The board also recently approved a new equity manager position in the administration, with responsibilities including the handling of discrimination complaints.

"These are things we agreed upon," Alfonso said, adding that "they weren't imposed upon us."

The district did conduct its own investigation into Gray's case, and did not find any evidence of bullying.

Allweiss dismissed that stance.

"Schools can circumvent the finding if they decide at any time during the investigation to enter into a resolution. I firmly believe that if the investigation were to go on there would be a finding," she said. "This agreement does not mean the harassment of Zachary Gray did not happen."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or as @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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