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Bullying demands our full attention

Name-calling isn't bullying.

Neither is pelting students with full water bottles. Nor, even, is kicking them in the head or the crotch.

Not according to Hernando County schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

"We have no documented incidents of bullying with this child," Blavatt told Times staff writer Danny Valentine last week.

"This child" is Miguel Rodriguez, who killed himself on Jan. 23.

If any suicide seems more tragic than the others, it is this one. He was a seventh-grader, just 12 years old — the age of Little Leaguers and Boy Scouts.

What could make a child that young feel that hopeless?

His mother's answer to that question is what makes this a public tragedy rather than — as suicides usually are — a private one.

She blames the school system.

Miguel was teased at West Hernando Middle School because he was small for his age, said his mother, Jeanette McCants; he was called "midget" and "gay" and "Mexican."

And she didn't wait until after his death to say he'd been bullied, didn't just say it as a matter of fact.

The two kicking incidents, the name-calling, the bottle throwing — it was all in a letter that she wrote to the school more than a year ago, on Dec. 8, 2011.

No evidence? It may not be as clear as a teacher's eyewitness account. But if a mother takes the time to write about her son's mistreatment and states, as McCants did, that she is "very concerned" and that her son is "extremely depressed" — yes, it's evidence.

Not bullying? That's another point Blavatt tried to make — that an isolated incident isn't bullying. It seemed a strange point considering that McCants' letter listed several incidents, that there were corroborating reports for two of them, and that she described the bullying as "constant."

Look, it's tricky trying to assign blame for suicide, partly because the ultimate responsibility lies with the victims themselves.

We can't know what was going on in Miguel's head, or what else was going on in his life. And the things that his mother wrote about, it's important to note, happened more than a year ago; since then, there had been few signs of real trouble.

So, let's forget about blame.

Let's look at whether Blavatt is too eager to dismiss bullying and whether a West Hernando guidance counselor did the same when she responded to McCants' complaints last year.

To its credit, the district has already decided to investigate the school's handling of the incidents in McCants' letter.

Hopefully this inquiry will answer whether the counselor was right to think that, even though kids still made fun of Miguel, this was "teasing" not "formal bullying." Clearly, the counselor listened to Miguel, then 11, when he said he no longer felt bullied. Maybe the new investigation will ask whether this counselor was aware that children that age often don't like to be identified as victims.

How could anyone not be aware with all the recent publicity about bullying? You might even be one of the people who complain that it's more than publicity, it's hype.

But the pain of a kid who comes home humiliated, who wakes up afraid to go to school, is real pain, intense pain.

It shouldn't be explained away. In my mind, the attention it's receiving is overdue.

When it comes to the damage of bullying, in other words, do believe the hype.

Bullying demands our full attention 02/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 2:16pm]
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