TAMPA — The squeals of laughter coming from the 26th floor of the Hillsborough County Center were the first clue that the gathering was no average county meeting. Clustered in a conference room, kids munched on pizza, slurped soda and planned the demise of schoolyard bullies.
"Have you ever seen someone calling or texting someone else a name?" an elementary school psychologist asked the 35 student "Bully Busters."
Almost every kid thrust a hand in the air. For the next hour, students talked about the differences between reporting and "tattling" on bullies and discussed reasons why cases are seldom reported.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita formed the county's Anti-Bullying Advisory Committee a year ago in response to high-profile bullying allegations at Walker Middle School in 2009. The Bully Busters campaign — composed of the adult committee and a youth council — is a joint effort between the Hillsborough County Criminal Justice Liaison, the Sheriff's Office and Crime Stoppers.
While the campaign tries to educate and promote awareness in the community, the end goal is simple: eliminate all forms of bullying from the county.
As the initiative approaches its one-year anniversary, committee members will have a number of successes to celebrate. Nickelodeon News interviewed Bully Busters for a potential television segment, and the Girl Scouts want to join forces.
The committee, which does not use any tax dollars, also received significant funding from grants and donations.
While the committee has proved it can garner support on a national level, members say the initiative's success rests in the hands of a group of giggly middle and high school students.
"Without you guys getting engaged, no one will listen to us," Ferlita told students at a July meeting. "We're here to be your supporting cast."
The commissioner said she has been pleased by the 35 to 45 students who have shown up at the first three Bully Busters meetings. They're intense and self-motivated, she said. They want to make a difference in their schools.
Amber Gervais, 14, said classmates bullied her in elementary school for being a "goody-goody" and a pushover. Most of the time she didn't tell anyone she was being picked on.
"I was scared to tell an adult because I didn't want that person to come up to me and say I ratted on them," she said.
The soon-to-be Chamberlain High School freshman excitedly talked about the positive impact Bully Busters could have on her school. She even ran for president of the group.
"I think Bully Busters is going to be really good," Gervais said. "If you get the community involved, it's going to put a bigger target on the problem. I would feel better if the Bully Busters came to my school and talked about it."
While many of the students view Bully Busters as a school initiative, Ferlita said the committee doesn't conflict with school antibullying programs. Instead, it bolsters those efforts at a county level.
"Once those kids leave the school premises and they go out to our parks and our recreation sites and our neighborhoods, the school district can't handle that," she said.
• • •
In September, the committee installed antibullying bench ads with the number for Crime Stoppers, allowing students and parents to text or call in anonymous tips. The 50 red, white and blue benches encourage students to "Take charge, report a bully and remain anonymous." The phone number also ran in Bully Busters' public service announcements on Bright House Networks and WEDU-Ch. 3.
The initiative's biggest obstacle, however, is one that even the youth council can spot: awareness.
At one meeting, Gervais, the Chamberlain freshman, encouraged students to make a public rally the Bully Busters' first project.
"Come on, guys," she yelled. "People need to know about us."
Students overwhelmingly voted for an attention-grabbing rally, which will likely take place early next year, instead of a bowling night.
Youth-centered organizations including the Children's Board, the Center for Girls and the Tampa Housing Authority are conducting a survey to learn more about the extent of bullying in Hillsborough, said criminal justice community prevention coordinator Eddie Santiago.
There are also plans to combat cyber-bullying and purchase resources parents can check out at a library.
While Ferlita's term as commissioner ends in November — she plans to run for Tampa mayor — she said the initiative is not likely to disappear.
"Some issues will sunset because we'll finish what we need to accomplish," she said. "This one will never sunset."
Sarah Hutchins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.