Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Spring Hill mom vows to fight bullying in son's name

SPRING HILL — Miguel Rodriguez had just reached 4-foot-8, and he was excited.

A sensitive boy, ever conscious of his height, the 12-year-old was anxious for his big growth spurt. For puberty.

He talked about it often with his mom, Jeanette McCants. She told him it could come anytime.

"Do you think I'm going to get pimples, Mom?" Miguel would ask her. "Do you think I'm going to start getting hair on my chest?"

"Yes, Papi, you watch," she said. "It's going to happen."

But it never did.

Miguel was found dead in his room on Jan. 23 after taking his own life.

Part of the reason, his mom says: He was bullied at school about his height.

"It was too overwhelming for him," McCants said.

The Sheriff's Office and school district are investigating the circumstances of the death. But everyone agrees: It's tragic.

"It's not easy getting up every morning knowing you have to get your child ready for school and he's not there anymore," McCants said, tears welling up in her eyes.

• • •

Miguel's death shook West Hernando Middle School, where he was a seventh-grader.

Friends held fundraisers for the family. They released balloons. Students honored him by wearing purple, his favorite color. They made shirts and pins. They scribbled tributes on their faces, necks and hands.

"R.I.P Miguel."

People throughout the community have come to know the boy's name. They talk about the increase in incidents of bullying. Some are pleading for changes — for someone to address the situation in a meaningful way.

On Facebook, a memorial page for Miguel has sprung up. It has more than 2,700 likes.

At Miguel's visitation and memorial service last weekend, more than 500 people paid their respects.

The line wrapped around the building, according to Turner Funeral Homes. It was one of the funeral home's biggest turnouts ever.

McCants said she didn't know most of the people.

She's said the response to her son's death has been overwhelmingly gracious.

Calls. Cards. People who just walk up to her.

"The impact my son has left on this community — if he only knew how many hearts he's touched and how loved he was, I think he would have felt different," she said. "That it was okay."

• • •

McCants said Miguel was always smiling, bubbly and kind.

He would offer to do things for the neighbors, never asking for anything in return.

He would ask them if they needed help mowing the lawn, washing the car. Any odd job.

But he also had his struggles. Primarily when it came to name-calling.

"He hated people calling him names," McCants said.

The bullying started when he began attending West Hernando last year, she said.

It ranged from names — "gay," "midget," "Mexican" — to kicking, water being thrown in his face and kids pushing him to the ground.

She said Miguel, who had been an honor student in elementary school, started making bad grades — D's and F's.

The bullying was the reason, she said.

School officials say, however, that there are no records of cases of bullying that involve Miguel.

"We have no documented instances of bullying with this child, nor do we have any contacts from the parent or anyone indicating that there was bullying going on in the school," said superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

That enrages McCants.

Earlier this week, McCants showed the Tampa Bay Times three reports that she said show her son was bullied. Two are in Miguel's own handwriting. The third is a request that she put in for her son to be transferred to another school because of bullying.

In one report, dated Nov. 10, 2011, Miguel wrote that he was in class. He bent down to pick up a pencil, and when he did he was "kicked in the private area." In another report, dated Dec. 8, 2011, he wrote that a friend kicked him in the head.

On that same date, McCants wrote the letter requesting the transfer.

"My son Miguel Rodriguez is a victim of constant bullying," she wrote. "Since he started school at West Hernando he has been shoved from behind while on his knees, kicked in his privates, kicked in his head, name calling, constantly being hit and thrown with a full water bottle to his face."

She went on to write that her son was "extremely depressed" with low self-esteem and did not want to return to school for fear of what students might do to him.

When asked about these reports, Blavatt reiterated that there had never been any reported incidents of bullying.

"Understand, in defining bullying, the state defines it very clearly," he said. "Bullying has to be persistent, or more than once. In this particular situation, what we dealt with is what we deal with all the time in school, and middle schools especially."

Blavatt acknowledged that Miguel had been involved in incidents, but said they didn't constitute bullying.

"That's clearly an incident. And that happens with some regularly," he said. "Adolescents at that age do stupid things like kick each other or flick each other in the ear. It becomes a problem when it becomes a pattern."

As for the pervasive bullying alleged in McCants' letter, Blavatt said there were no reports of those incidents.

The district did look into the two 2011 incidents.

In a letter provided to the Times by McCants, guidance counselor Rainee Harris McGeehan wrote, "Both incidents were considered horseplay and they were two different boys."

The guidance counselor spoke with Miguel toward the end of December 2011 about any problems he was having after his mom complained to the district about a lack of response to bullying accusations

"He said that things were O.K. now, and that no one was bothering him now, other than name calling," McGeehan wrote.

According to the letter, McCants came to West Hernando on Jan. 18, 2012, and the guidance counselor told her "what I had found out as far as there being no formal bullying done or documented.

"I asked Miguel if he was being bullied now, and he said NO! He was still being teased, and called short. But he is no shorter than a lot of our students, and is quite a nice looking young man."

Miguel was never transferred to another school.

• • •

In the aftermath of Miguel's suicide, the district is investigating his mother's allegations regarding bullying.

"We're going beyond because of the allegations," Blavatt said.

Officials are talking with teachers and others to see if there might have been missed or unreported instances of bullying.

Since the investigation involves a minor student, the results will not be made public.

In the meantime, McCants vows that everyone will know her son's name.

"I'll be heard," she said. "I am going to fight for my son and his name. His name will be known forever."

And she said she believes the district needs to adhere to its policy of not tolerating bullying.

"To me zero tolerance means zero," she said. "You did something. You hit me. You punched me. You slapped me. You should be gone — expelled. That's zero tolerance."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1423. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.

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