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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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On Monday, when school administrators were denying that documented incidents of bullying existed for West Hernando Middle School student Miguel Rodriguez, 12, who hanged himself in his home last week: his mother was finalizing a request to retrieve five related documents, and is still awaiting more. Among the documents in Miguel's file includes a "Student Reassignment Request Form" dated Dec. 8, 2011, requesting to transfer Miguel from West Hernando Middle School to Explorer K-8. "To whom it may concern," Miguel's mother, Jeanette McCants, began her letter addressed to the school board, which was attached to the request form. "My son Miguel Rodriguez is a victim of constant bullying. 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. All these incidents have been reported, documented and in some cases handled."
The transfer request shows that, although the "school has reported addressing concerns," the request was disapproved by the superintendent's office and director of student services Jan. 18, 2012, citing "overcrowding of schools" as the reason. In a complaint filed by Miguel on Nov. 10, 2011, he writes how someone dropped a pencil, and when he went to pick it up, was kicked in the genitals by another student. He was sent to a clinic where it was determined he did not have blood in his urine, refused ice treatment, and if still in pain could have his mother pick him up. In another complaint filed by Miguel on Dec. 8, 2011, he writes how a rubber band was flicked at him, and when he went to pick up the rubber band, was kicked in the head by another student. Miguel was again sent to the clinic where ice was applied to his head, his mother notified, and a "head injury" form provided. In a Jan 18, 2012 statement completed by a West Hernando 6th grade guidance counselor, the above reports of Miguel being kicked in the head and genitals constituted as, "horse play." "Both incidents were considered horseplay, and they were two different boys," the counselor writes. "Due to the mom going to student services complaining about no response to bullying accusations … (Miguel) was still being teased, and called short. But he is no shorter than a lot of our 6th grade students, and is quite a nice looking young man." "I have had no one complain about him being disrespectful, or for that matter anything else." Another Dec. 13, 2012 statement by a guidance counselor at the school describes a verbal argument that took place between Miguel and peers, noting that Miguel's mother would be notified should the dispute continue. Miguel said the dispute did continue, McCants said, although she was never notified. Also, in two "Teen Court" letters written by Miguel – who McCants said was admitted into the program after he was called a racial epithet and retaliated by deflating a pool belonging to the individual – Miguel reflects on how his decision was a response to what was done to him, lamenting his decision in doing so since the consequences also affected his mother, who had to sacrifice time to drive him to appointments, and writes that he will not respond that way again in the future. Teen court is not associated with the school district. "I want all the parents, the community to know who are angry and going through the same thing, and people who are not and don't understand what it takes to be heard," McCants said Thursday. "I did complain, my son complained, complained to the school counselor, records that he was hurt, sent letters to the school board for this to stop, and it made no difference." Superintendent of Schools Bryan Blavatt said Monday that he spoke with West Hernando Middle School administrators, and no documented incidents of bullying exist pertaining to Miguel Rodriguez. "From the very beginning, and I spoke with the principal and others, we have no documented incidents of this child being bullied at school," Blavatt said earlier this week. "Our records, for the year and three quarters that this young man was present, there is absolutely no documentation of any problems; disciplinary problems with the child were minor — very, very minor — and no documentation of bullying." Blavatt said Thursday that the above incidents reported by Miguel were investigated. "The only thing it turned out to be was the silly stuff that 6th graders do, like wedgies and kicking and stuff like that," Blavatt said, noting the guidance counselor made the determination that the incident was "playfulness" on the two students' behalf, and not a repeat situation. "There are no indications in all of the information we have – and it's not complete – and at this particular juncture there's nothing that we have that indicates there's any bullying going on." According to the Hernando County School District website, repeat offenses from the same offender is not a stipulation in the district's definition of bullying. West Hernando Middle School Principal Carmine Rufa said he could not comment on any bulling incident reports filed at the school until the Hernando County Sheriff's Office's investigation is complete. "I think everywhere in America you can find teasing," Rufa said. "If people want to call it bullying, I can't control what people say or do." Rufa said when he was a teacher in New York for five years, he saw students as young as Miguel, 12, commit suicide. "We want to keep everybody safe – children, adults – and of course we want to increase student achievement," Rufa said. "That's what we're in business for." According to the most recent Hernando County School District Student Code of Conduct anti-bullying policy, site administrators are responsible for receiving oral or written complaints alleging violations, and that all employees are required and must report, in writing, any allegations of bullying and violations of bullying policy to the site administrator. Failure to do so will result in action or discipline consistent with School Board Policy up to and including termination of employment. "I talked to the school, and they did nothing; they told me it was a boy thing and that he'd get over it," McCants said. "When a kid is trying to tell you something, listen." Hernando County School District advertizes itself as having a "Zero Tolerance" policy toward bullying. The Hernando County School Board defines bullying as a student or group of students who inflict physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students and may involve teasing, threats, social exclusion, intimidation, public humiliation, stalking, physical violence, religious or racial harassment, or destruction of property. Harassment is defined as any threatening, insulting or dehumanizing gestures graphics, use of data or computer software, or written, verbal or physical conduct directed against the student that places a student in reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property, has the effect of substantially interfering with a student's educational performance, opportunities, or benefits, or has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of a school. This also includes retaliation against a student or school employee by another student for asserting or alleging an act of bullying or harassment. "The bottom line here is we all feel awful on a personal and human level of the loss of this young man's life," Blavatt said. "But I got to tell you, there's not going to be a simplistic answer to this, and we don't know, and that's why we're investigating." The school board does not intend to make changes to the standing bullying policy at the current time, Blavatt said.
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