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Rehwinkel Vasilinda Convenes Anti-Bullying Task Force

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Tallahassee, FL – In the wake of recent high-profile cases of bullying and teen suicide, state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda has convened a task force of community leaders to better understand the problem in her capital area district. Margie Menzel reports.

"For a child to contemplate suicide, we are doing something wrong in our society."

Rehwinkel Vasilinda is responding to a warning from the U.S. Department of Education that harassment of students won't be tolerated. DOE's assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, said the department's Office for Civil Rights had received 800 complaints of harassment in the last fiscal year. Rehwinkel Vasilinda's call attracted dozens to the first meeting Wednesday, including city, county and school officials, ministers, youth advocates and students. LaCrai Mitchell is the student representative to the Leon County School Board.

"It's targeting my age group more than it ever has. And it's scary. It's scary because it's my friends and my peers," said Mitchell. "And while Columbine - some do look at that and say 'It would never happen to us' - well, it is."

The task force aims to stop all forms of peer violence, but DOE's Ali says her office has seen a surge in the harassment of gay and lesbian students. The Rev. Mark Byrd of Tallahassee's Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church:

"In my own experience, I can remember not dealing with my own sexual identity until I was in my mid-30s, but sitting on the side of the bed several times with a loaded shotgun," said Byrd. "So if I'm in my thirties doing that, what's it like for a teenager or a young adult?"

Tallahassee Fire Chief Cindy Dick, an out lesbian, described the peer pressure her 12-year-old son faces at school.

"He knows that for him to be cool and accepted, he's got to jump on that [bullying] bandwagon somehow," she said. "And so the pressure he's under to go there on such a personal issue for him really weighs heavy on my heart...We've got to teach these kids it's just not cool to be cruel."

The new task force will soon embark on an anti-bullying campaign. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is preparing to show schools how to respond to harassment, including the prevention of any retaliation against the complainants or witnesses.