A community forum on bullying

BY PUNEET SANDHU, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman hosted a community conversation on bullying attended by students, parents, local officials, educators and community leaders Thurs., Feb. 19 at the St. Petersburg High School auditorium, 2501 5th Ave. N.  After a brief introduction, a condensed version of the documentary “Bully” was screened, which chronicles victims’ tales of abuses by their peers in schools across the U.S.

Great38TV’s Jennifer Holloway moderated the informal discussion following the film screening, in which guest speakers answered questions.

“Bullying in all forms is a major obstacle to our success,” Kriseman said. “For our community to grow, every child needs to know that he or she is important and is valued. For that reason, I join with mayors from all across the United States as we sign the pledge to form the National Mayors Campaign to End Bullying.”

Phoebe Golden, a Mayor’s Youth Achievement Award winner from Azalea Middle School, began the evening by sharing her personal experiences.

“On February 15, 2013, I was kicked in the head … by a bully,” Golden said. “I went to the ER where I was diagnosed with a level-three concussion, the type that ends pro-athlete’s careers. The doctors said if it had been a half-inch lower, I would be dead or in a coma. The headaches, nausea, depression and blackouts started.”

Golden told the audience that after years of suffering from her bully-induced injury, she started to lose hope, especially when her classmates began bullying her after she returned to school. Through music, she said, she found hope and a way to speak out.

“If you or someone you know is being bullied, don’t be afraid to speak up,” Golden finished. “You may save their lives.”

Golden then performed the song that won her Youth Achievement Award.

The speakers in part addressed the general need to address bullying in the community. According to Metro Wellness and Community Centers Director, Chris Rudisill, “six out of 10 students don’t feel safe in school.”

“Every decision is motivated by fear or love,” Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin responded when asked how her family discusses bullying. “Bullying [is motivated by] fear and cowardice, and it can only be conquered by love and strength.”

Many speakers gave advice to students on how to address bullying they either experience themselves or witness.

“If you see something, say something and do something about it,” St. Petersburg Chief of Police Tony Holloway said. “We don’t want you running away from it.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri added that the police are one of the resources youth can use to report bullying.

Part of the conversation focused on cyber bullying. Director of Gulf Coast Giving, Jessica Moody, recounted how her cousin committed suicide at age 16 after receiving a negative text message from his girlfriend. Moody advised parents not to allow their children to keep their cell phones late at night, when a negative text message can leave the child awake, upset and alone until morning.

“Kids — stop, block, tell,” Moody advised. “If someone is doing something mean to you, stop the conversation, whether it’s online or in person; block it — turn away or block that person online; and then tell a trusted adult.”

“When we were young and having problems in school, we could close the doors and it would go away,” Wild 94.1 host Orlando Davis said. “But now, with social networking, it doesn’t just go away. So now what you have to do is find your happiness. Don’t let that bullying be your total existence. Find outlets, find things that you love and surround yourself with friends and family.”

In response to an audience question, Moody emphasized that Gulf Coast Giving has pro-social programs as a way to build self-esteem, as bullies are often people who are themselves victimized. “Hurt people hurt people,” Moody said.

Rudisill spoke specifically of LGBT programs offered by Metro, such as a weekly Sunday support groups and free counseling for LGBT youth ages 13 to 22.

Joan Reubens, a Resource Teacher with the Pinellas County Schools Prevention Office, said that all schools in the county have a team that investigates bullying reports.

“When a report is made, there is a team at the school that does that investigation … and many times we put a safety plan in place for the kids,” Reubens said. “We talk with the child, get their story and find out what’s going on, and we’ll actually talk with everybody involved in the situation, it’s not just the victim. The team will let the teacher that is involved with this particular student know what the plan is, what the safeties are, so that these cases are not continuing to go throughout these children’s schooldays.”

When asked about bullying that occurs on school busses, Reubens said that such incidents should likewise be reported, as schools will investigate cases that take place at any school-related facility, including bus stops.

All speakers emphasized the importance of filing reports and speaking out even if one is not directly involved in the bullying situation. “You should help people who can’t help themselves,” former Light Middle-Weight Boxing Champion Winky Wright said.

Outside of the classroom, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott emphasized a need for education and for adults to be involved in any youth bullying they learn about. “There are so many situations where so-called mentors are there, but they’re not really there. They say, ‘Kids will tease each other,’ but it may get to the next level.”

Miss Florida Victoria Cowen was on hand to share her experiences with bullying and spoke about recent trends in cyber bullying in which young people have compromised photographs shared on the internet without their permission.

“Bullying is something that happens to anyone of any age, so I think the most important thing we can do is let the victim know that they do have a voice,” Cowen said. “You can stop it. Talk to your parents, talk to your school advisors, talk to anyone that you can and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The discussion ended with audience members asking the panel questions. Kriseman promised this will not be the last discussion on the matter.

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