For six desperate hours, Robin Rose joined the nation in watching the events at Columbine High School unfold, not sure whether her daughter, a freshman at the high school, was dead or alive.
Panic turned to relief when, hours later, Rose learned that her daughter had survived the bloody rampage. But 12 other students and a teacher died that day.
"It rocked my world," Rose said of the 1999 shooting in the suburbs of Denver. "It totally changed my life."
The experience eventually led Rose to Hillsborough County, where she works as executive director of the Ophelia Project Boys Initiative of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing bullying, teasing and violence among boys.
"The problem is very real," said Rose, who moved to Tampa last year. "In January, a 9-year-old boy in Colony, Texas, hung himself in the nurse's office at school because other children called him 'gay.' A day later, a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts killed herself because of bullying."
Rose, who has a doctorate in conflict resolution, said the problem is more pervasive than the stereotypical classroom bully terrorizing weaker classmates.
"Children are now using the Internet to intimidate and embarrass their classmates because it's easy to do and it's relatively anonymous," she said. "Cyberbullying is out of control."
The goal of the Boys Initiative is to curb bullying — in person or via the Internet — by emphasizing traits students have in common, Rose said.
The program began in 2006 as an extension of the YMCA's Ophelia Project, which focuses on aggression among girls. In 2007, the Ophelia Project and Boys Initiative broke away from the YMCA to become a standalone nonprofit organization with offices based on W Gray Street in Tampa.
With limited funding available, the organization currently offers the Boys Initiative to sixth-graders in seven Hillsborough County middle schools: Greco, Stewart, Roland Park, Young, Ferrell, Dowdell and Memorial. Rose said the district chose these schools because they are all Title I facilities, meaning that a big percentage of the students come from low-income families.
Rose, who joined the Boys Initiative a year ago, after the April 30 bullying and sexual assault of a 13-year-old Walker Middle School student, hopes to offer the program to all middle school boys eventually.
The attack at Walker occurred just after the nation commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, leaving Rose frustrated about the lack of progress made during the past decade. She'd like to see social and emotional awareness education adopted and integrated into every school's mandatory curriculum.
"Our approach is to deal with the emotional and social reasons for bullying, to get inside the students' heads and help them understand why they think and feel the way they do," she said.
Rose said the Boys Initiative focuses on middle school students because they are the most vulnerable to bullying. The class concentrates on building character and values by teaching leadership skills and emphasizing positive peer influences.
James Nelson, program coordinator for the Boys Initiative, said he has seen drastic changes among the boys exposed to the program.
"They go into it thinking it's cool to make fun of other kids and, by the end of two or three weeks, you see a big change in their attitudes," Nelson said. "They have respect for each other, and will even defend their classmates if they hear someone else bullying them."
Susan Ferrell, lead resource teacher at Dowdell Middle Magnet School, said the Boys Initiative has been part of the school's sixth-grade curriculum for three years.
"The kids seem to look out for one another more," Ferrell said. "And they're more respectful of one another and toward their teachers."
At Greco Middle School, where administrators introduced the program to sixth grade boys a year ago, principal Tim Binder plans to offer the program to seventh-graders as well.
"All the feedback I've gotten about the program has been very encouraging," Binder said. "The teachers are saying good things about it, that it's making a positive impact."
In addition to children, the program provides conflict resolution training for teachers, coaches, counselors and others who work with students.
"We're able to influence a bigger piece of the pie," Rose said.
Rose spends much of her time meeting with civic, parent and church groups, trying to educate the community about the scope and dangers of bullying.
"Bullying isn't just a kids' problem. It's a cultural issue, and all stakeholders in children need to be involved: parents, teachers, churches, business leaders," Rose said. "Collaboration on the part of the entire community is critical if we're going to solve this problem and prevent another Columbine from ever occurring again."
D'Ann White can be reached at [email protected]