Collier schools didn't change bullying policies after 2011 bus stop fatal stabbing

Tristan Spinski/Staff 
Jorge Saavedra, 15, leaves a Collier County courtroom following testimony from his former schoolmates from Palmetto Ridge High School. Saavedra was charged with the stabbing death of Palmetto Ridge High schoolmate Dylan Nuno at a school bus stop in January 2011, but was cleared..

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI

Tristan Spinski/Staff Jorge Saavedra, 15, leaves a Collier County courtroom following testimony from his former schoolmates from Palmetto Ridge High School. Saavedra was charged with the stabbing death of Palmetto Ridge High schoolmate Dylan Nuno at a school bus stop in January 2011, but was cleared..

Being bullied:

Comes home with damaged or missing clothing or other belongings

Reports losing items such as books, electronics, clothing or jewelry

Has unexplained injuries

Complains frequently of headaches, stomach aches, or feeling sick

Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams

Has changes in eating habits

Hurts himself or herself

Very hungry after school from not eating lunch

Runs away from home

Loses interest in visiting or talking with friends

Is afraid of going to school or other activities with peers

Loses interest in school work or begins to do poorly in school

Appears sad, moody, angry, anxious or depressed when they come home

Talks about suicide

Feels helpless

Often feels like they aren’t good enough

Blames themselves for their problems

Suddenly has fewer friends

Avoids certain places

Acts differently than usual

Bullying others:

Becomes violent with others

Gets into physical or verbal fights with others

Gets sent to the principal’s office or detention a lot

Has extra money or new belongings that cannot be explained

Is quick to blame others

Will not accept responsibility for his or her actions

Has friends who bully others

Needs to win or be best at everything

Source: stopbullying.gov

— A year ago Tuesday, a fight between two Palmetto Ridge High School boys turned deadly.

Jorge Saavedra, then 14, stabbed Dylan Nuno, 16, to death after Saavedra was punched repeatedly in the back of the head. Last month, Circuit Judge Lauren Brodie said Saavedra acted in self-defense and cleared him under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

Yet, since that tragic day, the Collier County School District hasn't changed its bullying policies. The district said its policies already aligned with what is required by the Florida Department of Education.

The neighboring Lee County public school system took a proactive approach. It's arranging anti-bullying training for all district schools.

Collier district communications sent out after the stabbing didn't mention bullying or prevention techniques. School officials focused on counseling for those grieving.

One statement acknowledged that "we are attentive to the importance of reviewing our procedures to ensure the health, safety, and security of our students and staff."

Despite that statement, the Collier district hasn't revised or revisited any board policies as a result of that fatal day.

Court testimony in the Stand Your Ground hearing documents taunting and threats leading up to the Jan. 24, 2011, stabbing. The court ruling never mentions the word bullying.

However, behavior exhibited by Nuno fits the district's definition of bullying.

When asked about bullying policies, board member Kathy Curatolo said: "The procedures are in place."

"It was a horrible incident," she said. "But I don't believe the focus should be on the incident, but rather on what kids can do; who students can go to if they have a problem with bullying."

Board member Roy Terry said the district needs a strong emphasis on communication.

"What's more important is that teachers, administrators, and parents are talking with each other so that when they see something they know how to act," he said.

He suggested continued training and making kids more comfortable talking about bullying and harassment.

Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke said the district has a responsibility to help students have tools and strategies for resolving conflicts without resorting to violence.

"Our conversation needs to be about 'how do you have respectful conversations with your peers? How do we de-escalate bullying that occurs in our schools?'" he said.

The Collier School Board policy defines bullying as "unwanted and repeated written, verbal, or physical behavior, including any threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, by a student or adult, that is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment."

This includes bullying by means of teasing, threat and physical violence, including on a school bus.

Last year, Collier schools reported 18 cases of bullying and harassment. Five years ago, there were 82 cases of bullying and harassment.

The number of reported cases declined but it is unknown whether bullying in schools actually decreased. Weapons possession and battery on campus were both up from five years ago. Threat and intimidation reports were dramatically down.

When asked about declining reports of bullying, the Collier schools student services department responded: "The district's administrators participate in ongoing training regarding the prevention, investigation, identification, and reporting of bullying."

Jonathan Tuttle with the Collier teachers' union said teachers receive bullying awareness and prevention in-service days. Union members also are provided with additional resources from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

One report specifically speaks to bullying on buses.

"Bus drivers were more likely than other ESPs (education service providers) to report seeing bullying. They viewed bullying as a significantly greater problem at their school than did other ESPs," the report said.

Tuttle said he rarely hears concerns from teachers about not receiving enough training regarding bullying prevention.

* * * * *

Saavedra sat in the front of the bus. Nuno sat in the back.

"The boys in the back of Bus 736 often threw objects at the students in the front of the bus. These objects included spit balls, paper balls, pencils, pens and packages of syrup," the judge stated in her order that ended the juvenile court case.

To intervene in bullying:

When you see something, do something — be assertive and calm.

Start with verbal warnings. Use the name of the student who is bullying.

Call your school or dispatcher according to policy. Sometimes the call will stop the behavior.

If the behavior escalates, stop the bus in a safe place if you have to.

Maintain control of yourself.

Stand up and speak, clearly and calmly, to the involved students.

Do not argue with or try to convince the student who is bullying.

Move affected students to new, safe seats.

Report what occurs as required by your school’s policy.

Talk to other school staff members about what you’ve witnessed. Share your concerns about the students you drive, since they interact with the same students during the rest of the day.

Source: U.S. Department of Education Safe and Supportive Schools Center

The same back-of-the-bus boys repeatedly referred to Saavedra in derogatory terms, the testimony states. The judge's order said the boys threatened Saavedra with comments such as "We're going to get you" or "You'd better watch your back."

Saavedra exited the bus before his regular bus stop to avoid an altercation; Nuno followed.

Nuno then punched Saavedra multiple times in the back of the head before Saavedra pulled the knife from his pocket, the testimony states.

Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton, who stepped into her role almost six months after the fight occurred, said the district didn't have knowledge of the acts of bullying before the fatal stabbing."We didn't know so we didn't have this opportunity," she said, urging teachers and students to "speak up" if they hear or know of an escalating situation.

The district couldn't pinpoint additional steps it has taken to prevent future bullying.

A bus driver could have known that there was potential for a fight; a teacher could have heard rumblings of the altercation, former School Board member Steve Donovan said.

"If they knew about this, if somebody knew, and they chose not to act on it, that's where the liability falls," he said.

The court documents state that at the beginning of the school year, someone from the back of the bus threw a paper ball with whipped cream. It hit Saavedra.

"Saavedra went to the back of the bus to inquire who threw the ball at him," the judge's order states.

None of the boys in the back of the bus accepted responsibility.

Both Lee and Collier schools have links to bullying prevention pages on their website home pages.

Both sites mention the 2008 Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act that requires districts to adopt anti-bullying policies or risk losing state funding.

But in the January 2011 case, involving school administrators may not have prevented the fight.

"You can't legislate and ever do away with bullying," Donovan said. "You can't change a kid's behavior to a point ... but you had to see, Saavedra was pushed into this."

Saavedra purposefully tried to avoid further confrontation by not reporting the taunting events to the office or the principal, the court order states.

"He did not want the situation to escalate even more," the order states, referring to Saavedra's testimony.

Donovan, who had a child graduate from Palmetto Ridge before the stabbing death, said in addition to the school district, much of the burden to prevent bullying should be on parents.

"Parents have to teach children to stop being the victim," he said. "Kids have to learn to be assertive; stand up for yourself ... learn to defend themselves verbally or physically without a weapon."

Patton said the district's goal right now is to maintain and continue to enhance what policies it already has in place. She cautioned that the awareness and prevention training must be ongoing.

"It's not a one-time conversation," Patton said.

__ Staff writer Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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