TAMPA — Their lawyer warned them not to talk about the incident.
But members of the Hillsborough County School Board had asked for a presentation on bullying programs, after four boys from Walker Middle School were arrested last month on felony sexual battery charges. They're accused of raping a classmate repeatedly at the school with a broom and hockey stick.
Those 14- and 15-year-olds — who police say were witnessed by other students attacking a 13-year-old over a two-month period — have pleaded not guilty to the charges in adult court.
So on Tuesday, the topic was bullying. But the elephant in the room was Walker.
"I am very concerned about bystanders," said board member Candy Olson. "There are some schools where it's us against them, 'I'll take care of my buddies.' "
Member Doretha Edgecomb said the district should broadcast the message from the marquee of every school that bullying will no longer be tolerated or ignored.
"Kids have a saying, stitches for snitches," said April Griffin. "It's something that from one generation to the next has not changed. They do not want to tell on each other, but they have to understand, we are our brothers' keeper."
Director of administration Judith Rainone gave the board an overview of 14 anti-bullying initiatives that have been used recently in some district schools.
That myriad programs struck Olson as unfocused.
"When you have so many things going on, it's kind of hard to track," she said.
Officials also outlined a new policy on bullying approved by the board in December, long before the Walker incident.
It was prompted by the passage last year of the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, named for a Cape Coral student who committed suicide in 2005 after being bullied. The new state law requires districts to develop prevention programs.
Hillsborough's new policy includes anonymous reporting forms for students who have witnessed bullying. But school administrators aren't due for training on it until this summer.
"Every school's needs are different, but we know every school needs to have it," said Tracy Schatzberg, the supervisor of psychological services, last month.
"It's a terrible coincidence," she said, referring to the timing of the Walker incident. "But what it does is drive home the importance of this."
Experts say there's little evidence to support the effectiveness of most anti-bullying curriculums by themselves.
Unless schools create a climate where students forge trusting relationships with adults, then students won't report problems, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the new manual, Bullying Prevention and Intervention.
And schools must look hard for signs of bullying, and not ignore parents or students who say it's happening, said co-author Susan Swearer, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
"Schools need to collect data, not naming names, and then look at the conditions where bullying occurs," she said. "Presumably if this school had done a survey, the kids would have said the locker room is a problem. That's a no-brainer."
Some Hillsborough schools have begun creating such programs, said Schatzberg.
At Bryant Elementary, which uses the Steps to Respect program, students fill out maps showing where bullying happens in their school. Green is safe, yellow is an area of concern and red is a place where bullying occurs.
Students at Young Middle School in Tampa have been talking about bullying all year.
Every sixth-grader has received training from the Tampa-based Ophelia Project and Boys' Initiative, an anti-bullying program. The initiative served students in five middle schools this year, and will expand to seven this fall.
Trained facilitators work with boys and girls separately, teaching them how to talk about troubling issues. There's also teacher training and parent outreach.
"If you don't incorporate these social development programs, then you can't expect to see overall changes or academic improvement," program director Anna Abella said. "Ideally we'd like to be at all schools. Everyone is at risk in some way."
In a class at Young last month, a student read from a slip of paper submitted anonymously.
"One day a friend and I were in the lunch room," he said, as a dozen boys and facilitator Steven Coulbertson settled in for a talk. "We tossed spit balls at the nerdy kid, and one got in his nose."
"Isn't that stereotyping?" asked student Tyvon Brown. "If you call someone a nerd, you're judging them by the way they look, not the content of their character."
Next door in Tiffany Shillingford's class at Young Middle, girls said the program has been a haven. There have been fewer fights. And when problems come up, students have a place to talk.
"She has taught us how to deal with situations," said sixth-grader Zakiya Adams. "In here, everyone gets to talk."