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Despite federal ruling, schools continue anti-bullying programs

Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Stella Rotunda, 15, of Renfrew, was a freshman in Butler Area School District when she was bullied, she said. Though she is transferring to a different school, she is trying to help potential future victims of bullying. Rotunda spoke to Butler's board of directors on June 24, 2013. She urged them to make improvements to the district's anti-bullying policies.

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By Megan Harris
Thursday, July 4, 2013, 11:42 p.m.

Educators say they won't back down from bullying prevention despite a precedent-setting federal appeals court ruling that said public schools aren't legally obligated to protect students from one another.

“The court is trying to figure out how to handle things in a changing world,” said David Trevaskis, poverty coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association. “Whatever the judges decide, the schools should protect the kids.”

Bradley and Diedre Morrow of West Mayfield in Beaver County sued Blackhawk School District in 2010 because educators refused to expel a student who repeatedly attacked one of their daughters, even after judges twice found the attacker delinquent because of the assaults.

A 10-judge majority of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month confirmed a lower court ruling that said schools don't have the authority with students that the government has over inmates and patients involuntarily treated for mental illness, so it doesn't have a duty to protect students from harm.

“But what happens when they don't do anything about it?” said Valerie Rotunda, mother of two Butler Area School District students.

Stella Rotunda, 15, is soft-spoken and petite with dark eyes and long, full hair. An honors student, she laughs with her parents and twin brother, Dominick, whom she calls “awesome, supporting and caring.”

She doesn't know why other students targeted her but after years of daily abuse, name-calling and threats with little to no disciplinary action against the aggressors, she said she had enough.

“They threw food at me,” she said. “Called me fat and a slut. Fake. Ugly. Stupid. One boy told me I should kill myself because no one likes me and no one would care. When you hear that stuff about yourself every day, you start to believe it.”

The rising sophomore will transfer to Portersville Christian School in the fall; her brother will remain at Butler. She chronicled her story on June 24 in a two-page address to Butler's school board.

“They looked shocked when she read the letter, so maybe they didn't know this stuff happens,” her mother said. “That's why she went to the top. Maybe if it comes down from the board, the principals will do more. No child should be this unhappy or scared to go to school.”

Shiryl Barto, a manager and trainer with Windber Research Institute, helped institute anti-bullying programs in nearly 400 schools that reach about 228,000 children, including thousands in Western Pennsylvania.

“It's important to consider the language,” she said. “The schools have no ‘special relationship' with any one child to go above and beyond to protect that student specifically from the actions of a specific aggressor over time.

“Of course, it's up to the school to make sure their building isn't conducive to bullying, but ultimately, the actions belong to the children.”

The Pennsylvania Public School Code requires schools to adopt a publicly accessible anti-bullying policy that delineates disciplinary consequences but prescribes no specific anti-bullying measures.

In 2009, Seneca Valley School District adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a system that encourages students to participate in weekly classroom meetings and incorporates bullying prevention activities, including team-building exercises, games, discussions and specialized training.

North Hills and Upper St. Clair school districts put in place policies the same year.

Upper St. Clair's policy states: “We know bullying isn't confined to school grounds. ... We must work together to take immediate action, whether a child bullies, is a victim of bullying or is a witness to bullying.”

Missy Dudas opted out of the Steel Valley School District to send her girls to St. Therese School in Munhall. She heard rumors about bullying problems at the district, she said, and didn't want to send Anna, 4, or Danica, 8, into an environment any less loving and protective than their home nearby.

Trevaskis, a longtime school lawyer and advocate, said the Blackhawk ruling and Pennsylvania's guidelines should be schools' minimum standard.

“Just following the law is not enough,” he said. “It's the bottom line, not the guideline. Where are the moral and professional standards? As a teacher and administrator, you should be doing so much more.”

John Pallone, superintendent of New Kensington-Arnold School District, an attorney and a former state representative, said: “This ruling isn't going to change how we do business.”

The legal community watched the case for years, Pallone said, but a ruling about liability in a single bullying circumstance won't affect the district's commitment to protecting students.

“We will continue with our discipline programs relative to bullying in school, both physical and cyber,” Pallone said. “I can't imagine that any school district will permit bullying because of this decision. How insane is that?”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas contributed.

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