By DORIE TURNER
ATLANTA - Georgia school districts are revamping policies to combat bullying based on new state guidelines, hoping to stem behavior that educators across the country say has become rampant in schools.
The move comes after a new law requiring the Georgia Department of Education to give more specific guidance to schools on handling bullying. State lawmakers passed the law last year after an 11-year-old DeKalb County boy committed suicide at his home in 2009, which his parents blamed on repeated tormenting at school.
District officials denied it, and an independent review found bullying wasn't a factor, but the family of Jaheem Herrera still rejects that conclusion. The boy's mother, Masika Bermudez, said she's glad the state toughened its anti-bullying law but is worried districts won't do enough to prevent bullying.
"The law will help but it's up to the school systems now to really use," she said in a telephone interview this week. "They need to do their part and deal with our kids the right way."
States have been updating their bullying laws and asking districts to be more proactive after a rash of high-profile cases in which students committed suicide at schools across the country in the past few years. Students in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida have been arrested for bullying as schools crack down on harassment, and districts are being sued by families who say administrators ignored bullying until it was too late.
Under the new Georgia policy, bullying can be anything from unwanted teasing in the hallways to cyber-bullying through social networking websites or text messages. Students charged with bullying must get age-appropriate discipline or counseling, and their victims must also get help.
The state first passed an anti-bullying law in 1999 requiring districts to develop policies to prohibit bullying for grades 6-12 and sending students to alternative schools after their third bullying offense in one school year. The revamped law expands anti-bullying policies to include all grades and requires districts to notify parents of both the bully and the victim after the first incident.
Districts must have new policies in place by August of this year.
In DeKalb County, officials began updating a bullying policy after former Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the new law in May, said Quentin Fretwell, director of student relations. The district held "Bullying Awareness Month" in January and is reaching out to parenting groups and homeowners associations about how they can help.
Gwinnett County, the state's largest district with 150,000 students, is training bus drivers on how to deal with bullying and piloting a U.S. Department of Education program in 18 schools that promotes positive behavior. Others are working on policies based on the state's guidelines and asking students to create skits, hold pep rallies and organize other activities to raise awareness, educators said.
Bullying is nothing new, but some experts say it's become more pervasive now because of technology that allows bullies to torment classmates outside of school.
Garry McGiboney with the state education department said many communities have finally recognized bullying is a problem.
"Bullying is not a rite of passage. It has been and continues to be a problem for our children," he said. "And now it's taken on another dimension that has caught the public's awareness."
Georgia Department of Education: http://www.gadoe.org/