One morning last month, Emily Evershed's 9-year-old daughter, Alicia, called from school with fear in her voice.
A boy in her class at Chocachatti Elementary School had been calling her names for weeks. On one occasion, he had pushed her. Alicia didn't want to be in class with him anymore.
"I'm scared," she told her mother.
Evershed, an Army veteran who lives in Spring Hill, had already lodged a bullying complaint. School officials, she said, told her the boy had been suspended.
But Evershed thought the boy should be moved to another class. Instead, she said, she was told by a district official that her daughter could be reassigned. That seemed unfair, Evershed said. Alicia loved her teachers and was doing well.
"It's going to put a message out there that when you get bullied, you're the one that's going to be moved, not the bully," Evershed said. "I just want justice to be done."
It's a common refrain from parents who feel their children have been victimized by their peers. District officials, however, say bullying complaints are being handled much more effectively, thanks to a new policy put in place two school years ago.
"We're dealing with it more proactively," said Jim Knight, the district's director of student services.
In 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act. Known as Jeff's Law, the measure is named in honor of a Cape Coral student who committed suicide in 2005 after relentless bullying by a classmate. Jeff's mother, Debbie, pushed for the legislation.
Districts were required to come up with bullying policies and procedures based on a model from the state Department of Education. The main component is a reporting process that requires schools to document and investigate bullying complaints, then to inform parents of the outcome and any action taken.
Not required by the state, but adopted in Hernando, is a policy that requires middle and high school student offenders to take part in a bullying awareness class. Elementary students attend one-on-one sessions with a guidance counselor.
But parents like Evershed still complain, sometimes heading to the district office to plead for help from the superintendent or School Board.
The reasons, school officials say, are myriad and include misunderstandings about the definition of bullying, failure to report incidents in a timely fashion and a need for some schools to do a better job addressing complaints.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt, hired a year ago, said the district has improved in that respect even in the last several months, but he acknowledged there is more work to do.
"It's still not the very best we could be," Blavatt said.
Stacy Walsh made a promise to herself when she heard Debbie Johnston's story.
"I'm not going to be that mom," Walsh, of Brooksville, recalls thinking.
Walsh's son, Gavin, now a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics in Spring Hill, has been picked on by peers for years.
After Jeff's Law was passed, Walsh was part of a committee that helped draft Hernando County's bullying policy.
"Bullying became my issue, but not by choice," Walsh said. "I was very optimistic we had found the answer."
It wasn't long before Walsh had to use the new policy for Gavin.
"I was horrified by how the process went," she said.
The district defines bullying as behavior that "inflict(s) physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students and may involve teasing, threats, social exclusion, intimidation, public humiliation, stalking, physical violence, religious or racial harassment, or destruction of property."
To constitute bullying, the harassing behavior has to be unprovoked and repeated. And that's often a tripping point for parents, Knight said.
"One time is not bullying," he said. "It's not right, but it's not bullying."
When a parent lodges a complaint, school officials have 10 days to conduct an investigation unless the superintendent grants an extension. Administrators interview witnesses and note the type of conduct, how often the alleged bullying or harassment occurred and if the behavior was part of a pattern.
A lack of witnesses is often a problem, and cases come down to one student's word against another, Knight said.
"Would you want us to punish your child if we can't prove it?"
If the district finds that a student has been bullied, administrators craft a plan. Disciplinary action for the bully can include in-school or out-of-school suspension or moving the offender to a different bus seat or classroom.
In four or five cases last year and a couple this year, repeat bullying offenders were transferred to the STAR Center, the district's alternative school for students with chronic behavior problems, Knight said.
A key part of the plan is the bullying and harassment awareness classes, he said. Middle and high school students attend four group classes. Parents sit in on the first session.
"We feel the best thing to do is to try to teach (students) why they shouldn't do this behavior," Knight said.
So far this school year, 29 students have participated in the classes; 11 more will attend next month.
School officials still take action when a bullying complaint is not substantiated. Students are disciplined if they commit a one-time offense. If there is suspicion but not proof, school officials work to make the alleged victim more comfortable through conferences with teachers or guidance counselors.
"If a parent feels this plan wasn't good enough, they need to go back to the school and say, 'My child still doesn't feel comfortable,' " Knight said.
• • •
School officials cannot comment on specific cases like Evershed's, Knight said.
But one of the most common sources of parent dissatisfaction, he said, arises when students or parents wait weeks or months to lodge a bullying complaint. It's difficult at that point to prove that the offense happened on a repetitive basis. The district had a total of 117 unsubstantiated bullying reports last year, but those reports can provide critical evidence later.
"The sooner we can get involved, the sooner we can take action," Knight said. "If it's documented and it happens again, we'll take different action next time."
In general, the process works if parents are patient and understand that substantiated bullying complaints are rare compared to one-time acts of harassment, said Chocachatti principal Maria Rybka. The school had no substantiated bullying cases last year and 13 unsubstantiated reports.
An act as simple as bringing the students together for a meeting with a guidance counselor can work wonders, Rybka said.
"There is a real importance to reporting every incident, of course, but then allow the school to work with the kids a little bit to see if something can be resolved," Rybka said. "It's amazing what happens when you get two kids to talk to each other."
But Walsh and Evershed echoed the kinds of complaints other parents bring to the School Board. They follow the procedure, wait and don't get timely responses. In one of Walsh's cases, she said, it took several weeks for administrators to act. Even in cases where it seemed clear that a student's behavior met the definition of bullying, school officials didn't come to that conclusion, Walsh said.
Walsh said she talks to parents throughout the state who have the same complaints.
"Things are being brushed under the rug," she said. "There's so much paperwork, and administrators don't want to do it."
The district needs to make sure principals have the staff to properly address complaints, Walsh said.
"It does take many, many manhours to do the investigation, but we do that, and we're glad to do that," Challenger principal Sue Stoops said. "Sometimes it's not settled with the outcome that the parent wishes it would, but we do follow the procedure."
The school also has a new class this year at the elementary level that addresses social skills. It's a way to head off bullying issues before they start, Stoops said.
There has been a learning curve for school staffers to properly investigate and classify cases, said John Stratton, principal at Explorer K-8 School. Records show the school of some 2,000 students had 24 cases of substantiated bullying or harassment last year. About a dozen of those were bullying cases, Stratton said. (The state, up until this year, did not code harassment and bullying cases separately.)
Stratton said he's confident that at least some of those bullying cases did not meet the definition of the offense.
"We've become much better at identifying what is bullying and what isn't," he said.
So far this school year, there has been one substantiated bullying case at the school, Stratton said.
Some schools have more room for improvement than others when it comes to addressing complaints under the new policy, Knight said. Asked if any schools are doing an unacceptable job, he replied, "Not that I know of."
"If we find out (parents) feel something didn't go right, or they've not been heard, we're following up on it right away," he said.
Blavatt said only a handful of parents frustrated with the school-level response to a bullying complaint have contacted the district office this year.
Still, the district is looking at ways to expedite and improve the reporting process, he said. Another strategy that has already been used in a couple of cases: bringing in a third party, such as the district's safety and security director, to investigate when parents disagree with a school's findings.
Evershed said she has little faith left in the system, but she also doesn't want to pull her daughter out of Chocachatti, a magnet school for the arts.
"I don't want to teach her to run away."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.