SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - Everyone's been affected by bullying in some way. Either you're the victim, the bully or a witness. WINK News is taking a deeper look at what some lawmakers are calling, "an epidemic in Florida."
This month, we brought you the story of Nick Shriver, a Naples teenager who took his own life. His mother said it was the result of intense bullying, especially online.
Nick's story struck a chord with many viewers. You asked who is responsible and what is being done to prevent this from happening over and over again. From law enforcement to schools to lawmakers, we went looking for answers.
"The cyberbullying on Ask.fm, that's the part that really broke my heart," Arlene Shriver said.
Her son Nick is gone. But, the hurtful words directed at him online remain, warning signs that her son was in trouble.
"I can't even explain the feeling that did to me," Shriver said.
April 15th, 18-year-old Nick Shriver shot himself. "We lost a special man," Shriver said.
His mother now lives with the fact that other students knew what was going on but didn't say anything.
"Maybe it's a lesson that anybody who thinks somebody is at risk, they need to tell somebody," Shriver said.
Corporal Sandi Sprenger is a youth relations deputy at Pine Ridge Middle School. She says hallway and schoolyard bullying hasn't changed much. But, throw in social media and smart phones and "It has really exploded," Sprenger said. "The kids aren't using Facebook anymore. That's a dinosaur to them. They've got all these other ones. There are several apps that are dangerous. They allow anonymity."
Sprenger is making a plea to parents to open their eyes. "Parents need to have that phone at night next to them charging every night," Sprenger said. "When you have it, go through it, be familiar with what your kids have, be familiar with the apps they're downloading."
In the Collier County School District, punishment for bullying ranges from "positive behavioral interventions" to "suspension or expulsion." We wanted to know how many times this has happened but were told, student discipline is confidential.
So, the question remains, is school punishment enough to deter the bullies? Even state lawmakers are stepping in.
"Bullying is an epidemic in the state of Florida right now," Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen tells WINK News. "We are trying to thread a very find needle to be able to say, there is a penalty for a repeated pattern of hostile harassing activity, whether is in person or on social media."
Last year, Ftzenhagen proposed House Bill 451, Rebecca's Law, in response to the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Polk County. It would essentially, make bullying a crime, either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the severity.
But, legislating something like that isn't so cut and dry. This month, H.B. 451 died in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
"This was particularly difficult because we don't want to create a bigger problem than the one we are trying to solve," Fitzenhagen said. "We don't want to criminalize kids' behavior that doesn't equate to bullying. Just because someone says something unkind on the playground doesn't mean we want them to be accused of bullying or to be adjudicated for bullying and have a penalty that is too harsh."
She's not done fighting. Fitzenhagen plans to file legislation again in the upcoming session. With a few tweaks, she's confident it'll pass.
"It breaks my heart," Fitzenhagen said. "Truly, it breaks my heart for Rebecca Sedwick. It breaks my heart for Nick that in many instances, these kids were all alone. They didn't feel like they have anyone to turn to."
In the meantime, those devices that can so easily hurt can also help. Collier students can send anonymous bullying tips online to the school or via text to Crimestoppers. Coordinator Trish Routte says they get about 3 or 4 a month. "We jump on those pretty quick," Sprenger said. "We need to step up. We need to have our kids create a different culture in these schools. The culture in the school needs to change. One way to do that is not to be bystander. Be an upstander. Help somebody because you never know, you may save someone's life."
There are "upstanders" in our schools, even among some of the youngest. David Nee and Nathaniel Miller, both 3rd graders at Cape Elementary and 2nd grader Katie Blackwell of Pelican Elementary were honored at this month's Cape Coral Police "Do the Right Thing" ceremony. They were touted for standing up to bullies and trying to end that culture in their schools.
Report bullying in Collier County - http://www.collierschools.com/students/bullying/report.asp
Text bullying tip to Crimestoppers-
Number 274637, Keyword DNTH8