- Sonja Isger Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The posters across Spanish River High’s campus have touted a bullying hotline for as long as Natalia Galicza can recall. Been bullied? This is a number to call for help. They mentioned it at a class assembly, put the number up on a PowerPoint presentation. But this fall, the co-editor of the student newspaper was tipped that the hotline was dead and had been for a while.
So Galicza gave the number a call, left a message and, she says, never heard back. Three times.
The hotline, which had been in service since 2009 when all district schools were required to install one, was down from the beginning of this school year until October.
“It’s disheartening. If we’re going to advertise such measures to prevent bullying, they should work,” Galicza said. “I have had many friends in middle school and high school who have been through it and it’s a painful ordeal.”
Hotlines at two other campuses also have had hiccups this fall, leaving administrators at Santaluces and Suncoast high schools searching for workarounds to make sure any messages were heard.
At a time when bullying has become a significant concern, in a state that requires every public school to have some way for students to anonymously report the crime, administrators agree a downed or unanswered hotline is troubling.
“Are you kidding? We can only work on what we know,” said Kim Mazauskas, who heads the district’s Bullying Awareness and Intervention program. If the adults aren’t tipped off somehow about the bullying, they can’t act, she said. “That’s a critical piece for us.”
But it’s not the only piece. Each school should also have anonymous tip boxes on campus and trained staff who can field concerns and questions confidentially as well.
And the district is interested in upping its game by giving students the tools to report bullying from their phones – but that’s still in the works, Mazauskas said.
No central tracking of tips
Meanwhile, it is difficult to gauge how widespread hotline problems are and what effect they have on reporting bullying. The district doesn’t centrally track the number of tips coming into a school or how they are reported, nor is it alerted when a hotline goes down, Mazauskas said.
Ever since 2009, Florida has required school districts to tackle bullying head on. The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act came four years after a 15-year-old Cape Coral boy hanged himself in his bedroom closet after suffering years of perpetual teasing and harrassment from a classmate, bullying that didn’t end at the classroom door but infiltrated the boy’s social network via the Internet.
Bullying is a very specific abuse that the state defines as behavior that’s intended to cause fear, distress or harm, and that happens repeatedly over time. There’s a real or perceived imbalance of power between the bully and the victim and the abuse can be physical, verbal or psychological.
The Jeffrey Johnston act requires districts institute anti-bullying policies that ban harrassment and intimidation. The act requires prompt investigations and spells out consequences for students and school employees who break the rules.
In the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, Palm Beach County reported 178 bullying-related incidents.
Those numbers are lower than what other large urban districts reported, including Pinellas which with 328 incidents, Miami-Dade with 313, as well as Hillsborough and Orange counties, which counted 297 and 192 bullying-related incidents, respectively.
Does that mean those other counties are more aggressive at reporting or is Palm Beach County better at preventing? Hard to say.
PBC’s approach a model
The state refers to Palm Beach County’s multi-pronged approach to bullying as a model for other districts, Mazauskas said.
At Spanish River in Boca Raton, the hotline is monitored by one of the school’s assistant principals, Principal William Latson said. And even when it works, he said, students use it “very rarely.”
He described the calls to the line as “silly things most of the time,” adding, “If there’s something serious, they know where all of us are and they tell us. The hotline, it’s there for somebody, but it’s a lot faster when they come to us so we can respond then and there.”
Latson first told The Palm Beach Post that the hotline was the unintended victim of a phone system upgrade. But officials at district headquarters said there was no such upgrade and after speaking to Latson, they concluded that the problem was the result of staff turnover and a wrong password that left messages unchecked “for a couple of days.”
By the Galicza’s count, it was closer to months.
Her first calls went without reply in August, prompting her to write a story about it for the student paper. The headline: Bullying Hotline brings false hope to victims. She said she called again after the story appeared in September’s edition and still got no response. Latson told The Post the problem was fixed in October.
Suncoast administrators also encountered a password problem, said Principal Karen Whetsell.
“We realized we had a problem in September,” Whetsell said. She said staff was addressing the matter. Thursday, district officials said they were working to assure the line was working and would be resetting the password.
When student newspaper staffer Samantha Powers went on a hunt for the hotline number at Suncoast, she couldn’t find it. “So I went looking for a counselor. She said it was in our agenda and on our Edline page, but as of right now we (reporters) haven’t found the number.”
The number is posted on campus, Whetsell assured on Thursday. And because Suncoast was observing anti-bullying week, Whetsell planned to make a campus-wide announcement reminding students of their options when it comes to reporting bullying.
Fewer than five calls came into the Suncoast tip line last year, she said. The anonymous tip box on campus has been just about as popular, she said.
“In my long experience as a principal, I don’t think the bullying hotline has been incredibly useful,” Whetsell said. They were more widely used when they were first introduced, she said. “I find today that students are not shy about letting people know what’s going on. Anytime we’ve had an issue in regards to bullying or teasing, someone’s gone to teachers, to me or my assistant principals.”
When Assistant Principal Wilnic Gideon at Santaluces High in suburban Boynton Beach had difficulty accessing that school’s bullying hotline messages earlier this school year, he had the calls rerouted to his desk. This is his first year in charge of fielding bullying reports and while he values the hotline, he said the anonymous tip box has been a bigger draw – three reports have been dropped in the box so far.
‘It’s OK to let us know’
None met the strict definition of bullying, but all were situations that warranted investigation, he said.
“Most students nationwide don’t report bullying because of fear. We want them to know it’s OK to let us know, whatever avenue they choose to let us know,” Gideon said. “We’re going to do a video this week regarding our bullying box to let kids know it’s there. We’re also going to re-address our hotline.”
Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 students in the United States say they’ve been bullied at school, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But research suggests only about 20 percent to 30 percent of them tell an adult.