Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bullying Suicide in Pasco County, Florida

Resolving a complaint about bullying often comes down to whom you believe.

Not in the case of Kiefer Allan, a 15-year-old Sunlake High student whose harassment by a schoolmate was captured on a surveillance video, recorded as they rode home on the school bus one day last year.

"He's literally sitting on him," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, who viewed the video. "It's clear that young man was bullied on that day, and probably other days."

The 22-minute video, obtained by News Channel 8 under Florida's public records law, shows Kiefer minding his own business as a boy approaches and sits on him. Another boy tries to restrain Kiefer's legs. They joke about sexually assaulting the much smaller Kiefer. They are surrounded by a rapt audience.

The raw video is painful enough to watch, but the back story adds to the outrage for Kiefer's family and friends.

They say Kiefer had been a victim of chronic bullying. And four hours after the attack on the bus, on Jan. 13, 2011, Kiefer fatally shot himself.

His mother, Jane Doucette, questions why the Pasco County school district didn't flag these and other bullying incidents in reports it is required to produce under the state's anti-bullying law.

To Fasano, this means the law isn't being enforced.

"That's where the Legislature has to go back and take a look, ask some questions and demand some answers," he said.

* * * * *

Her son endured months of bullying, said Doucette, a single mother who works as a nurse in Tampa.

"It happened since the first day of school," she said.

Still, Kiefer was a straight-A student who even completed his homework the day of his suicide.

"After the first incident, I said, 'I'll home-school you," Doucette recalled. "I'll do anything."

She described her son as a friendly, outgoing boy who loved sports, planned to join the Coast Guard and had just started a relationship with a girlfriend the week before his death.

Attorney David Tirella, hired by Doucette to negotiate a settlement with the Pasco school district, said there's a straight line from the school system's failure to protect Kiefer from other students to his decision to commit suicide.

"It was the loss of hope that we think got him in the end," Tirella said. "Nobody was doing anything."

The bus video obtained by News Channel 8 was deliberately blurred by the Pasco County School District to protect the privacy of students. But the audio is clear.

"Hey let's just rape him when he gets off the bus," one boy said in the video. "That sounds like fun."

Then they described what they planned to do in sexually graphic detail.

One boy, in an apparent attempt to keep the unidentified bus driver from interfering, said "We're friends."

Kiefer replies, "No, we're not."

* * * * *

"It was not consensual," said Tirella. "This wasn't a ticklefest. This was kids coming up and verbally and physically assaulting him in a very vile and graphic way, and we believe it put Kiefer in fear for his life."

In the minutesbefore the attack, the bus driver threatened to write a disciplinary referral against one of the boys for standing, sitting in the aisle and using profanity.

She also had chastised the boy for violently rubbing his hands through the hair of a female student on the bus.

"Would you stop it," the bus driver yells, "Leave her alone."

The driver isn't heard saying anything during the attack on Kiefer.

It lasted only a few minutes before the bus stopped and the students walked off. As he passed the driver, the bully who sat on Kiefer told her, "I'm just being nice."

Kiefer didn't mention the incident on bus 315 to his mother and adult sister when he arrived home at their apartment in Odessa.

"He put down his book bag, went upstairs and came back down," Doucette said. "It seemed like any other day."

Four hours later, according to police reports, at 6:43 p.m., Kiefer sent his mother and sister the same text: "I love you."

Seven minutes later, neighbors in the apartment complex reported hearing a loud bang. No one went to investigate.

An off-duty Pinellas County sheriff's deputy who lived in the complex discovered Kiefer around 10 p.m., slumped under the electric meters outside his apartment with his mother's gun still in his hand.

* * * * *

Allan had fired one shot into his temple. His finger was still on the trigger. As law enforcement and paramedics arrived, his mother and sister approached the crowd to report Kiefer missing.

Doucette said it was unusual for Kiefer to wander without saying where he was going. He'd already completed his homework and they were worried about him.

"I knew something was wrong," Doucette said. "It was hours before they actually told us what happened."

More than a year later, she's still trying to understand why the bus driver didn't do more to shield her son, or why the Pasco school district didn't alert her about the incident.

"Who's going to protect them if our schools don't protect them and we don't know anything about it," Doucette said.

The school district won't comment on the incident, citing student privacy and the threat of litigation.

"I feel so alone," Doucette said. "I just feel people have forgotten about it and it's just swept under the mat."

After Kiefer's suicide, a distraught student reported that Kiefer had been bullied on the bus. The school resource officer at Sunlake High, Darold Cook, reviewed the video with school administrators.

Some witnesses told Cook the two aggressors acted like they were molesting Kiefer. One boy who sat in a seat in front of Kiefer told News Channel 8 he tried to stop the assault by knocking a bully's arm away during the struggle.

Cook reported he took note of every incident the two aggressors had previously been involved in at Sunlake.

"It clearly shows a pattern of behavior trouble in their classrooms," Cook wrote in his report. "And it also shows (they) have trouble keeping their hands to themselves."

* * * * *

Cook recommended Pasco prosecutors file simple battery charges against both boys who attacked Kiefer. But prosecutors dropped the case with a written notation: "This case would best be handled without requiring the child to appear in court."

The two boys no longer attend Sunlake High and may have moved away, according to the boy who said he tried to stop the attack.

Kiefer's mother said she has no idea whether the boys were punished in any way.

In an email response to questions by News Channel 8, Pasco school district spokeswoman Summer-Star Romagnoli said there was no formal investigation into the driver's conduct that day.

* * * * *

"There is nothing written in her personnel file related to the incident," Romagnoli wrote. "After reviewing the tape, our administration made the determination that there had been no inappropriate action on her part."

After News Channel 8 began asking about the school bus incident, Pasco schools discovered a "clerical error" in its annual safety indicators report to the Florida Department of Education, Romagnoli said.

No one had reported the bus attack to the state, as required by law.

The district is fixing the error. But Romagnoli said the incident still doesn't meet the definition "bullying" because — despite Doucette's description of other incidents — it represents a single battery instead of a pattern of harassment.

Last year, Pasco schools reported to the education department a grand total of 28 bullying-related incidents for the entire district of 89 schools. Those statistics, on file with the department, indicate Sunlake High School had zero bullying-related incidents.

Romagnoli said district records indicate high schools in Pasco average about one bullying incident every other year, even though some other districts in Florida report hundreds or even thousands of such incidents.

* * * * *

Kiefer's mother doesn't believe the Pasco school district's official tally reflects what's really going on.

Neither does Fasano.

"Even when I was in high school, bullying went on more than just once every other year," Fasano said. "I don't care what school you're in, what district you're in, it happens."

He's not pleased to find out that the Department of Education accepts bullying statistics from Pasco County and every other district in the state on face value without taking responsibility for validating the data.

* * * * *

The Jeffrey Johnston Act passed in 2008 says districts can lose millions in Safe Schools funding if they don't comply with accurately reporting that information as a basis for creating educational programs to counteract bullying and violence in schools.

Doucette said she hopes her son's death will help improve enforcement of the law.

"I want to do something now for Kiefer so no other mother or child has to go through this," she said.

"He was supposed to take care of me when I get old."

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