TinyTerrorists: Battling Bullying in Ocala

Marion County leaders employ progressive approaches to battle a problem that has plagued us forever: bullying. They are saying, “Enough is enough.”

Story by Scott VanDeman

Photography by Chris Redd

December 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut: Adam Lanza kills twenty-eight and injures two, most of them elementary school students, before turning the gun on himself. At Rutgers University, student Dharun Ravi surreptitiously broadcasts via the Internet his dorm mate’s private romantic liaison with another man. Tyler Clementi, the dorm mate, subsequently jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

And here in Central Florida’s Polk County, twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from a water tower, presumably because of her schoolmates’ relentless cyberbullying.

It’s a drumbeat of tragedy. One more school shooting. One more youth suicide. In news media reports, bullying frequently surfaces as a possible, if not the likely, cause.

Since the April 1999 school shooting in Columbine, the notion that bullied, misfit students are more likely to act out in violent, self-destructive ways has become commonly accepted wisdom. But is it true?

Not necessarily, argues national bullying expert Susan M. Swearer, Ph.D., Professor of School Psychology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Swearer also co-directs the National Bullying Research Network.

“There is no simple answer. The federal government put together a panel to see if they could profile school shooters. They were unable to because the underlying reasons why people are aggressive are so complex,” she said.

Swearer also said the urge to cast children who engage in violent or bullying behaviors as villains is misguided: “Another unfortunate tendency among the media is to paint bullies as evil. Children who bully actually can occupy the role of both bully and victim.”

What about the victims? Swearer said bullying doesn’t always result in tragedy because people react to stress and adversity differently.


Consider the case of Tampa resident Paul Harris, 44. Once a child viciously bullied for a physical disability, today he is a popular, highly respected telecommunications executive. Harris, who is visually impaired and has “never seen a star,” rose to become Verizon’s top national business-to-business salesman.

“Seeing is a challenge compared to other people, but I don’t let it affect me. I make it work,” he said.

In 7th Grade, however, the story was very different. His classmates began to tease him for his unusually thick glasses and for having to ride at the front of the school bus. The teasing evolved into dangerous physical bullying. Harris’ peers tricked him into walking off a 30-foot cliff.

Harris—who still bears physical scars and has the occasional nightmare about the incident—considered suicide. Then he realized he had the choice to work hard and be better than his tormentors.

“The bullying experience made me strive. Look at me today!” said Harris. “I will never go back to the days when I thought I was nothing.”

Does bullying alone really cause suicide or suicidal thoughts? So far, science has not answered that question.

Jeremy Pettit, Ph.D., Professor of psychology at Florida International University, specializes in youth suicide. He said a cause-and-effect relationship between bullying and suicide has not been established.

“It’s going beyond the research at this point to assume a causal link. More research is needed,” he said.

Pettit also cautioned it’s premature to rule out a cause-and-effect relationship. “There tend to be multiple factors such as depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation that can lead to suicide attempts. What we can say now is—for children who are already experiencing these feelings—bullying ratchets up the pressure and increases the risk,” he said.


Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair insists violent acts have no place in Marion County, let alone in its schools.

While some consider a certain amount of hazing to be harmless kids’ stuff, that antiquated view fails to recognize that bullying always runs the risk of crossing the line into criminal behaviors.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying here,” he said.

Blair employs School Resource Officers who are trained to see the most subtle unusual activities. If there is shoving in the cafeteria that goes on day after day, for example, the officer will investigate. Ultimately, however, there are only two tools law enforcement has to address bullying: prevention and apprehension.

“That’s what we can do in the context of law enforcement,” said Blair. “We need the cooperation of the community to completely address the problem.”

Captain Alicia Walker, who runs the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) juvenile division, explained one of the agency’s innovative efforts to stress prevention and intervention over a purely punishment-based approach.

“While we do have that zero-tolerance policy, Sheriff Blair and I both know that’s not the whole answer,” said Walker.

“I sit on a board with school officials focused on bullying,” she said. “Together we created a contract for students who violate the code of conduct. Both offending students and their parents must sign the form.”

To drive the point home, parents must come to the school in person to return the form, which lists the criminal penalties to which the student could be subject if the behavior does not stop. Walker said parents are cooperative.

“We make sure everyone understands that violation of the contract can result in alternative school placement, or worse, criminal prosecution. When you call someone out on their behavior and put it in writing, you’re putting everyone on notice,” she said.

It’s an effective approach. This school year, six forms have been filled out, and only two students alternatively placed. Still, Walker said there likely are incidents that are going unreported, and that’s why education and prevention efforts must continue.

Sheriff Blair added: “I’ve always said you can never measure prevention. You can measure crime because people report it, but no one reports prevention.”

Blair said innovation is key to successful interventions to stop bullying. He has reached out to Pastor Richard Perinchief of Ocala’s NOW Church to address the problem in creative ways that combine the power of both law enforcement and the faith community.


“Pastor Perinchief and I met for lunch, and I told him about all the measures we are taking regarding bullying. I asked him how we could work together,” said Blair.

Blair shared his idea, which is based on a project the MCSO did for the American Cancer Society. Through a collaboration among area law enforcement, patrol vehicles served as “rolling billboards” to raise awareness and a lot of money for cancer.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t this be used to address other issues?’” said Blair.

The Pastor was on board immediately.

“As Pastor, after seeing the tragic results of bullying, I felt that enough is enough,” said Perinchief. “When the incident happened in Polk County, I finally decided I had to act now.”

Among other contributions, NOW Church is coordinating the contest for kids to design the anti-bullying billboard for MCSO patrol vehicles.

“Messages from youth to youth are always the strongest,” he said.

The MCSO will work with media to announce the winner and raise awareness in the community. Blair is quick to point out how the program benefits kids.

“It creates a sense of leadership. That will be the win-win,” said Blair. “Students will step up and create the peer pressure needed to get victims and bystanders to report bullying. And don’t be a bystander. Refusing to accept helps create social disapproval for this kind of activity.”


The pulpit is a powerful platform, and Pastor Perinchief uses that power to spread a positive message.

“I talk to my congregation about respecting people who are different. Somewhere along the line I realized we had forgotten to make a difference in the lives of people outside our congregation. We needed to be more inclusive,” said Perinchief.

Perinchief said he believes our society has gotten away from teaching the basic values of kindness, courtesy, and respect for all people. He said the role of the church is as much healing as inspiration.

“If we’re not reaching the hurting, why do we exist? The church is not
a country club. The church is a place of healing for everyone,” said Perinchief.

The Pastor has encountered more kids who are victims of bullying than he expected. His forward-looking approach, however, gave him a whole new perspective on the real size of the problem. Proactive, positive programs are in development with the support of Sheriff Blair.

“Once you open the door and begin to talk about the problem, you begin to hear the stories. Interest gives you entrance,” he said. “The more we take interest, the more we learn and the more the stories are surfacing. We are mining the issue right now.”

Meanwhile, Perinchief is using the pulpit to remind his congregation about God’s expectations of all people: Extend equal love and compassion to everyone.

“One of the things we talk about is the power of words. The Bible says death and life are in the power of the tongue. It’s more difficult to heal people who have been hurt with words than those who have been physically hurt,” said Perinchief.

“From my heart: Kids who bully, at the end of the day, are reacting to their own brokenness by reaching out with evil talk and threats,” he said. “We intend to make a difference one heart at a time.”


Allison Aronld-Wigginton, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with Ocala Psychiatric Associates, is an expert in bullying and has devoted a large portion of her career to the issue. In 2000, she began working at an inpatient psychiatric facility in which all the children had been severely bullied.

She said bullied children are at risk for potentially life-threatening problems. They can suffer from a range of clinical diagnoses including anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression.

“Kids don’t have the coping mechanisms adults have, and they don’t have the verbal skills to express their pain adequately. They feel they are trapped in a terrifying situation,” said Arnold-Wigginton.

“Children have big imaginations, and bullying often can take on a life of its own,” she said. “The fear cycle is as intense as abuse by adults—verbal, physical, and sexual.”

In spite of the terror severely bullied students experience, she said reporting is the best answer. She encourages all bullying victims to report, take control of the situation, and change the balance of power.

“Talk to someone who you trust and who you think can help. It doesn’t matter who it is. Fear paralyzes everyone, but the fear of retaliation never seems to match the reality,” she said.

Arnold-Wigginton said children who bully also are in turmoil and need as much, if not more, counseling than those they victimize. They do not possess the social skills they need to become healthy citizens and need therapeutic interventions.

“Children who bully learn a power and control cycle that is hurtful, ineffective, and leads to damaging outcomes for themselves, whether they realize it or not,” she said. “Many of these kids grow up to be participants in domestic violence and many end up incarcerated.”

Arnold-Wigginton has observed that kids who bully frequently develop a condition called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Sufferers have no anger impulse control. They have no ability to communicate how they feel, and can develop more serious disorders ranging from Conduct Disorder to Antisocial Personality Disorder.

“They simply lack the ability to empathize with others,” she said.

The consequences of peer abuse are not limited to the children involved. Families can suffer right along with the victim and the bully.

Jim VanRiper, 49, of Tallahassee, is the parent of a bullied child, now grown. VanRiper serves as statewide chairman for Equality Florida, a group that works to protect and advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Floridians. He said his need for self-acceptance as a gay man had serious ramifications for his son.

“My son was in middle school at the time of my coming out,” he said. “He was bullied constantly in school because a child of one of our family friends started telling the other kids about it.”

What started as teasing and name calling quickly escalated. A group of kids trapped VanRiper’s son on the playground, stripped him, and painted his entire body with indelible ink, an act that—had it happened to an adult—would have resulted in serious criminal charges.

“The school wouldn’t act on it, and law enforcement chalked it up as boys being boys,” said VanRiper.

“Having this happen to my son was devastating,” he said. “I was already swimming in feelings of guilt, regret, shame, and heartache, not to mention dealing with a very hurt and angry wife. I tried to get my son into therapy, but his mother was not supportive. I was being blamed for his suffering.”

For Arnold-Wigginton, VanRiper’s experience is, sadly, all too familiar. When parents find out their child is being bullied, guilt and remorse frequently set in.

“Parents have to work together, and there has to be a unified front. I have actually seen families separate over this,” she said.

Arnold-Wigginton said bullying has far-reaching implications and remains an issue for society at large. To combat it, we need to use the same tactics we used with smoking and drunk driving. Americans were successful in changing these destructive behaviors through education and social disapproval.

“When we educate kids from a very early age, they understand these behaviors are not acceptable,” she said.


While America’s educators work tirelessly to provide quality education in circumstances that too often are less-than-ideal, they face the added challenge of managing modern bullying behaviors among their students. For teachers everywhere, bullying distracts from the overarching goals of education, and it’s no different in Marion County. Here, educators fight bullying on multiple fronts.

School psychologist Dana Abshier, Ph.D., is Supervisor of Alternative Programs in Marion County Schools’ Student Services Department. She also spearheads the school system’s anti-bullying efforts. Abshier said Marion County’s approach includes consequences, positive reinforcement, counseling, and current science.

“We have trained our school disciplinarians to dig seriously into their data. Within our district, we really want the teachers and administrators to become data nerds,” Abshier said with a laugh.

She has pored over the statistics and said while the incidence of bullying has not increased over the years, reporting has, sometimes leading to the misconception that bullying is more widespread now than in the past. Still, Abshier said no amount of bullying is acceptable.

“Most of the time, students who engage in bullying behavior have either been bullied themselves or simply lack social skills,” she said. “Nevertheless, that doesn’t make their behavior OK.”

Today, childhood aggression is a matter of quality versus quantity. Battling bullying in a modern world is more challenging than in past generations because, like it or not, we are a society completely exposed in cyberspace. Abshier said both students and educators now have to manage a whole host of new problems created by the constantly connected society we live in.

“The ability to really hurt someone with words is more intense with the advent of the Internet. Cruel words are not just said, but are also blasted out there to the whole world. It can be very scary for children,” said Abshier.

“Social networking provides kids with the sense of security they need to say things they might not ordinarily say to someone in person,” she said. “Worse, with tools like Facebook, everyone can see the disparaging comments. It’s very public.”

Bullied kids frequently feel anxious, stressed, and hopeless. Abshier urges them to come forward and seek assistance.

“We have great school counselors who are on the front lines, and they are the first people students should go to,” said Abshier. “A school psychologist is on campus once a week, and our social workers are also a great resource.”

Help is available for the victims and perpetrators alike. More often than not, kids who bully are themselves victims, and they need someone who can listen and help them. Without that, they can’t recover from their own issues. And without addressing their needs, the bullying problem cannot be resolved.

“Bully is not a noun; it’s a verb,” said Abshier. “As a society, we unfortunately tend to label and define kids who bully by their behavior. Sometimes, the things they do are so offensive that some have the urge not to want to help them. We have to get over that.”

From research data to behavior interventions to counseling, Marion County educators recognize that every student is an individual. Teamwork enables them to devote attention to children with stresses and emotional needs that are not just outside the ordinary, but unique.  They reject a one-size-fits-all solution.

“We don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to our troubled students. Rather, we have a synergistic team of professionals working together to address their individual needs,” said Abshier.

Bullying always has been a part of the human experience. The challenge for law enforcement, the faith community, medical professionals, and educators is to minimize its impact and to help create a safe environment for all children. This is no easy task. Nevertheless, Ocala Psychiatric Associates’ Allison Arnold-Wigginton said, with contagious optimism, that the problem is solvable in Marion County.

“I really do have a firm belief we can stop this. I have a five- and six-year-old.  I’d like to see this go away for them. I have a strong conviction we can do this as a community.”

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