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Bullying tragedy casts a wide shadow

The anti-bullying policies at Williamsville and other suburban Buffalo school districts don't go far enough, national bullying experts said Thursday, four days after the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer of Amherst.

"You can't just vaguely put something out there and say bullying is not nice," said Chris Hampton, a bullying expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, who reviewed the anti-bullying policy common to local suburban districts.

It doesn't hold up to New York guidelines, she said. "With young people, you have to say exactly what you can't do."

Local school officials, however, reject any accusations that they don't take bullying seriously.

"I think that's one of the things that's lost in the media today," said Dan Lliljanich, principal of Williamsville South High School. "We do more to prevent bullying and harassment these days than I believe has ever been done before."

Many area districts offer some type of bullying awareness program. But the comprehensiveness and consistent application of policies, training and procedures vary from one district to the next.

And if a 14-year-old boy can be bullied for years and wind up dead within weeks of entering high school, national child advocates say, something has to change.

Thomas E. Perez, a Buffalo native who now serves as the nation's top civil rights lawyer, called the suicide of the Williamsville North freshman "another preventable death."

Brandishing printouts of Buffalo News articles detailing the online taunts and insults that Jamey Rodemeyer endured, the assistant attorney general of civil rights was visibly angry as he addressed the crowd at a two-day summit on bullying sponsored by the the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

"The quotes that were in there, the things they said to this young boy, were just unspeakable," Perez said.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network criticized the anti-bullying policy many local suburban districts currently use.

New York State adopted the Dignity for All Students Act in 2010. This anti-bullying law forbids harassment based on any of 11 personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, weight, ethnicity and religion. The law goes into effect statewide in July 2012.

The Buffalo Public Schools comprise the only district in the region, and one of a handful statewide, that decided to adopt the law early.

Most other local school districts' anti-bullying policies are based on model language drawn up by the regional BOCES educational consortium that does not specifically say that bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or other identity-specific traits is prohibited.

Policies aside, most local district officials say bullying is taken seriously.

Many school districts, including Williamsville, offer student assemblies and staff development sessions on the issue of bullying and cyberbullying. The Williamsville district is also offering a parent program on the topic in March.

Orchard Park has a broader program. Every staff member -- from the principal down to the school janitor and bus driver -- got extensive bullying-prevention and -intervention training in March after a district survey showed the a high percentage of bullying occurs in cafeterias and classrooms -- when teachers and other adults are present.

"We wanted all of our staff to be empowered and to have the tools to be able to effectively intervene," said Lisa Krueger, an Orchard Park elementary school principal and certified bullying-prevention trainer who heads up the district's anti-harassment program.

Instead of offering a single student assembly on bullying, the schools are holding class meetings every one to two weeks to keep the issue fresh in kids' minds.

"A one-time assembly is not going to cut it," Krueger said.

The City of Buffalo, meanwhile, implemented the state's anti-bullying law last school year, said Will Keresztes, Buffalo's associate superintendent for educational services.

As part of that effort, the district adopted a detailed, six-page youth suicide-intervention policy and translated its anti-bullying policy into five languages, he said.

The district also put in place a District Bias Response Team to support schools dealing with the types of bias identified in the state's anti-bullying law, including sexual orientation.

Finally, the district has broadened the authority of principals so that they are empowered to aggressively crack down on cyberbullying that occurs outside of school, he said. As a result, Keresztes expects the number of reported bullying incidents to rise.

"A perpetrator doesn't get to escape responsibility just because it happened out of school or off campus," he said. "Our principals are required to treat that act of misconduct as if it happened inside the school building."

Referring to online posts such as the ones received by Jamey in middle school stating he'd be better off dead, Keresztes said the Buffalo school district would have considered those posts death threats and immediately contacted police.

Amherst police, who are now looking into Jamey's case, were never contacted in relation to Jamey's bullying issues, said Police Chief John C. Askey.

The Williamsville School District has not publicly discussed the details of Jamey's school history. Jamey's mother, however, said Heim Middle School did pair her son with a social worker. It's not clear whether any of the students now being investigated by Amherst police for potential harassment charges were ever sanctioned by the district.

The Amherst teen's death was fresh on the minds of many at the national conference -- and none more so than Perez, who said he grew up five minutes away from where Jamey attended school.

He said it is too soon to say if his department will investigate the bullying that preceded Jamey's suicide. But Perez made clear that his office has confronted other bullying cases nationwide and would not be shy about doing so again.

"This federal government is going to put every tool in its arsenal to bear on this issue," Perez said in a speech in Washington, adding that bullying "should never be a rite of passage."

Under Perez, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has taken up bullying as an important law enforcement matter, he said.

The Justice Department joined a lawsuit last year against the Mohawk Central School District in New York involving a student who, the department said, was bullied because he "exhibited feminine mannerisms, dyed his hair, wore makeup and nail polish, and maintained predominantly female friendships."

Under the settlement of that case, the school district hired consultants to draw up a new anti-discrimination policy and train staff about discrimination based on gender expression and sexual orientation.

Participants at the conference said that states and school districts have tried varied approaches to combat bullying on their own. But the experts recommend a far different approach to the issue than that taken by the Williamsville district and other local districts that have adopted the BOCES anti-harassment policy.

"Personnel at all levels are responsible for taking corrective action to prevent bullying/cyberbullying behavior of which they have been made aware at School District sites or activities and/or reporting such behavior to their immediate supervisor," the policy says in one of its key passages.

That stands in sharp contrast to a model policy offered by the ACLU, which states, in part: "Harassment of a student by another student or by a teacher or other staff member is a violation of school policy. This includes (but is not limited to) harassment based on race, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or disability."

In specifically naming gender expression as one of the factors that can, but should not lead to harassment, the new state law goes farther than such measures in many other states, said Johanna Miller, assistant advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The comprehensiveness of the law led to a 10-year struggle for passage, Miller said.

Lliljanich and other local school administrators said dealing with bullies requires serious investigation, swift consequences and counseling for both victims and perpetrators. It also requires a change in school culture that is finally starting to occur.

"What I think is really a good thing is that it's reported a lot more than it was before," the Williamsville South principal said.

"Now our message to our kids is you don't have to tolerate that. You don't have to be harassed. It's not about telling or being a tattletale. It's that you don't deserve to be treated that way, so you need to report it to us."

Zremski reported from Washington and Tan from the Buffalo area.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com and stan@buffnews.com