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School protection bill dies, sparking protest

A "die-in" is staged to urge an end to violence, harassment and discrimination at school.

Published April 17, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Passers-by out for a stroll in North Straub Park on a brilliant spring day found the scene startling.

Five young people dressed in black jeans and black shirts lay motionless on red brick pavers in a small pavilion, their hair tangled, their faces streaked with makeup to simulate cuts and bruises.

On the ground beside them were handwritten statements describing the physical and emotional violence that had led to their "deaths."

Other young people, also dressed in black, stood over them holding placards. "Rest in Peace Student Safety and Campus Violence Prevention Act," read one.

House Bill 1303, an initiative that would have prohibited harassment, discrimination and violence in educational institutions, died in the Legislature on March 29 despite extensive lobbying that took several of the students to Tallahassee. Refusing defeat even after learning that the bill had failed 6-2 in committee, the students gathered in the park Wednesday to stage a "die-in" to raise public awareness of the need for such legislation.

Calling themselves "an informal collective of Pinellas County high school students and allies," the young people explained their goals: the creation of safe schools, the end of bias-based harassment, and the assurance that every student can learn in a safe environment regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical ability - precisely what the Student Safety Act would have accomplished, they said.

Among those who came to support the students was Allora Craig, a Boca Ciega High School sophomore. The 16-year-old said she sees fights fueled by intolerance nearly every day at her school.

"People make fun of Jews, white people don't like black people, and kids always make fun of gay people," she said. "If you're different, you're looked down upon."

A few school districts, including Pinellas', have policies against discrimination and harassment, but there is no statewide protection from harassment in schools, the students explained. The Student Safety Act would have ensured protection for students who live in districts that don't have an antidiscrimination policy, they said.

It also would have taught administrators and teachers how to address harassment and discrimination when it occurs, a skill that Lakewood High student Candice Schmuggerow said Pinellas schools sorely need.

The 15-year-old sophomore told of a girl attacking another girl with a pair of scissors recently at her school. The attacker was suspended but soon was back at school, Schmuggerow said.

"You ask the administrators why they don't do anything about the violence, and they say they don't know what to do," she said.

Shea Struder-Willis, 15, was one of several students who said discrimination has caused her to consider suicide.

A freshman at St. Petersburg High School, Struder-Willis said her classmates have stolen from her and physically abused her because she is bisexual. She got to the point where she began questioning whether her life was worth living.

Rick Robertson, a 22-year-old New College student, recalled a time when his classmates at St. Petersburg Catholic High School held him at gunpoint because he is gay. He missed 100 days of school in his senior year and had to appeal to graduate, he said.

The "safety summits" of Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox are a good start, but they don't go far enough, said Francette Moore, a St. Petersburg High School senior.

"They're discussing us like we're an abstract concept," Moore said. "I like Dr. Wilcox and his ideas, but I wish he would come to one of our multicultural committee meetings or to a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting."

Struder-Willis agreed.

"We need to make people aware of what's happening," she said, "before it's too late."


Violent acts that occur in Florida schools in a typical school year: 14,153

Percent increase in bullying between 1999 and 2001: 60

Percent of students in grades 6-10 who are involved in moderate to frequent bullying as a perpetrator, victim or both: 30

Source: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Journal of the American Medical Association

[Last modified April 17, 2005, 00:25:16]

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