Senate committee chairman relents, lets panel consider measure
By jason Wermers AND betty Parker • email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org • March 11, 2008
Debbie Johnston is entering the third year of fighting for her son's legacy, and she might have a better chance now.
That's because state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, the legislator who effectively killed the same anti-bullying bill last year, said he is willing to let the Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee, which he chairs, hear the measure.
Last year, Wise pocketed the bill, which is named after Johnston's son, Jeffrey, who killed himself at age 15 in 2005 after enduring more than two years of cyberbullying from a classmate. That prevented the committee from hearing it. In 2006, Wise's predecessor as committee chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and now Senate president, did the same thing.
Wise said he had opposed the bill because he felt the protections it offered were already in place under existing law. The "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act" requires all school districts to develop policies prohibiting bullying and harassment and allows districts to punish students who bully or harass their peers through a computer or communications device, even if the behavior takes place off campus and during nonschool hours.
"I studied it further, and if they want the bill, they can go ahead and do it," Wise said. "I will let it be heard."
State Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, is sponsor of the House version of the legislation. He was glad to hear of Wise's willingness to let the bill be heard in his committee.
"That's great news," Thompson said. "That makes me feel much more optimistic" about its chances for final approval.
But Thompson also pointed out that the bill still faces other deadlines and hearings before becoming law.
While Jeffrey was being bullied as a Trafalgar Middle School student, his mother taught science down the hall. She and others tried to address bullying as a group then, but it just drove the behavior onto Internet postings, including a hacking of a video game Web site Jeffrey had set up during the summer between his seventh- and eighth-grade years.
He killed himself after finishing his ninth-grade year at Ida S. Baker High School. He wrote a suicide note found on his computer, "I'll never get over eighth grade."
Debbie Johnston, now a first-grade teacher at Hector A. Cafferata Jr. Elementary in Cape Coral, also has joined forces with the family of Megan Meier to promote a federal cyberbullying law.
The 13-year-old Missouri girl killed herself last year after the family of a former friend created a MySpace page posing as a boy interested in dating her. The writer then said he wouldn't date Meier because of rumors he'd heard about her. The family accused of the scheme wasn't charged because no law that covers that form of harassment exists.
Johnston also is spreading "The Megan Pledge" through her Students for Safer Schools network in Florida, encouraging students to sign the anti-bullying promise.
Florida legislators sponsoring the bill say it would protect those targeted by bullies, as well as bullies, not provided under state law now.
"It provides a more formalized and transparent process for dealing with bullying situations, for the schools, the parents, and for the student," said state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, co-sponsor of the House version of the bill with Thompson.
"By making it law rather than school board policy, we are adding an extra layer of emphasis on how important it is to protect our children at all times."