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Saturday, Jul 26, 2014
Pasco Tribune

District uses summit to examine bullying

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WESLEY CHAPEL - They came from all walks of life.

They were students, educators, businesspeople, church leaders, parents, community organization representatives and government employees.

But the roughly 150 people who participated in a youth summit at Wesley Chapel High School on Thursday share a goal: They want to combat bullying, youth violence and other problems young people face.

"We need to change our culture so all students feel needed, wanted and respected," said Roy Kaplan, a research associate professor at the University of South Florida who served as facilitator.

One of the difficulties in dealing with a problem such as bullying, Kaplan said, is that schools can get so caught up in standardized tests that they lose sight of the need to educate young people in more than just algebra and verb tenses.

"We need to make better people before we make better students," Kaplan said.

Thursday's gathering, called "Together We Stand - Pasco Youth and Community Summit," arose, in part, from an agreement the Pasco County school district reached last month with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The federal agency began a discrimination investigation in 2012 after the parents of a Zephyrhills High student filed a complaint saying their son was the victim of "gay baiting" at school, although they say he is not gay.

The student, Zach Gray, suffered brain damage from an unsuccessful attempt to hang himself in 2011.

Gray's case was one of several high-profile cases that drew attention to bullying in Pasco schools during the past couple of years.

"We as a district understand there are issues we need to address," Superintendent Kurt Browning told those gathered for the summit.

Cori Arndt, 17, a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Land O' Lakes High, said that's important.

Arndt said she hasn't experienced bullying personally and that students in IB tend to be a supportive bunch, but through sports and school organizations she has learned bullying is a problem in the school.

"I'm glad it's being addressed," Arndt said.

Molly Blair, a supervisor in the district's office of student support programs and services, said solutions might be found in 41 developmental assets that were identified in research by the Search Institute of Minneapolis, Minn.

Those assets, such as family support, a caring school climate, adult role models and a sense of purpose, help young people become better adults. The more assets young people possess, the more likely they are to perform well academically while avoiding violent activities and being prone to depression or suicide.

"The work we are doing here as a community is going to save lives," Blair said.

Participants discussed challenges the school district faces such as size, with more than 60,000 students countywide, and poverty.

They also talked about some of the community's strengths, such as sports programs, Scouting, faith-based youth groups and libraries.

Mihail Kaburis, 15, a Land O' Lakes High sophomore in the IB program, said he thinks bullying is less of a problem than it once was, though it still needs to be addressed. After the opening session, the summit participants split into breakout groups. Kaburis said students seemed open to discussing their experiences, especially after they were allowed to ask adults to leave the room.

"I feel we are getting a full opinion from the whole student body," Kaburis said.

Later, he said, the students would be able to share their ideas with the adults to work toward solutions "as an entire community."

In the welcome session, Kaplan demonstrated that Pasco is more diverse than people might realize.

He asked the participants to stand, based on where they were born. Some were Pasco natives. Others were born elsewhere in Florida. Many were born in other states, and several were born in other countries.

For some, such as Bethashley Cajuste, 15, an IB student at Land O' Lakes High, English is a second language.

Cajuste, originally from Haiti, speaks Creole as her first language, though she is fluent in English.

Cajuste said she hasn't experienced much bullying but has dealt with discrimination and with people stereotyping her.

Cajuste was pleased the summit drew adults with varied backgrounds.

"I kind of like the fact I'm seeing more than just students," she said. "Other people care."

School board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said including community members is important.

"The issue of bullying and student self-esteem goes beyond schools and goes out into the community," she said.

Armstrong was pleased so many students were involved. About 30 registered to participate, representing Hudson High, Gulf High, Pasco High, Ridgewood High, Zephyrhills High, Anclote High and Land O' Lakes High.

Melissa Musselwhite, the district's director of student support services, said bullying isn't something people in the district always felt comfortable discussing.

"In the past, it was almost a taboo topic that we didn't want to talk about," she said.

Building awareness is the first phase of an effort to combat bullying, Musselwhite said.

The teenagers participating in the summit will be able to take what they learn back to their schools, she said, and use their leadership skills to help address the problem.

rblair@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1853

Twitter: @RBlairTBO

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