SEBRING - Starting this school year, every school in Highlands County is offering students a way to anonymously report bullying incidents without having to directly approach a teacher or administrator.
The "bully boxes," as they are called, are common in other school districts, said Highlands County School District's Coordinator for Students Services/Assessment Marcia Davis, who brought the idea to Highlands County after seeing it in Polk County.
Davis said Florida law requires that schools provide students a way to anonymously report bullying incidents but leaves the school districts to come up with their own ways of doing so. She realized that Highlands County schools were not addressing that statute requirement, so Lake Placid High School technical class students made the boxes that have been installed in all the schools except two. Davis explained she has not had the chance to meet the principals of the two schools, but the boxes will be soon be put into place.
While students will still be able to talk to their teachers or administrators, if they prefer doing that, students who don't feel comfortable or are afraid to be seen talking to them can inform school authorities of possible harassment through the locked boxes that are accessible only to school staff members.
"So far, I think they are working fine," she said. "I haven't got any complaints." Some students tried to make a joke out of it but were talked to by school administrators.
But at least one student thinks these boxes are a bad idea.
Avon Park High School freshman Zoe Eddins is afraid some students might turn in names of innocent students and get them into trouble.
She has heard students joke to others about the bully box, while saying, "I'm going to put your name in the bully box." She said she is afraid they might end up doing just that.
"I've asked some of my friends and they joke about it," she said. "No one is taking it seriously."
Eddins said she lost a friend to bullying, and students harassing other students is too serious a thing to be taken lightly and the bully boxes might contribute to that.
"A serious bullying problem could quietly be discussed with school administrators via a discreet letter or office visit, not a stuffed 'bully box' which often fails to prevent bullying," she wrote in a letter to the editor to Highlands Today, as part of her bellwork for English class.
Davis explained that students and parents will continue to have all the avenues they had to report and address bullying. The boxes are just one more way for students to respond, she said, and were done keeping in mind requirements of Florida law.
Some schools offered students a chance to respond anonymously online but found later that the process was too time consuming, she said.
"They were getting 70 a day, saying 'I'm being bullied,'" she said, so Highlands County decided to go with the boxes.
While Davis didn't rule out frivolous complaints being dropped into the boxes, she said it will be the responsibility of school staffers to weed them out, like other complaints they receive. Schools have established procedures to investigate bullying reports to make sure they are legitimate and warrant action, and these will be followed, she said.
Highlands Today asked readers for their responses on Facebook and got mixed responses.
Some wrote it was a good addition.
Michael Solebello felt it was a good way to "fight this problem."
Lora England wondered how many students would use the box.
"Most victims of bullying do not want to get anyone in trouble. It's good to have it available though," she wrote.
Kim Powers thought it is a step in the right direction but wondered what would happen if a bully saw the victim dropping in a complaint.
"I think that would weigh heavy on the victim's thoughts and most likely deter them from utilizing the box," she said, adding a web page offered more anonymity.
Some other parents who responded said the boxes would do no good because the school district was not responding to bullying complaints in a timely way.
A parent who emailed in a response but wanted to stay anonymous said her daughter was bullied by three other kids in her school and became afraid of going to school because the harassment escalated after school.
When she contacted school officials, she was told that teachers were keeping an eye on them but there was nothing they could do once they left school grounds.
"Therefore, do I think a 'bully box' will help this issue? No! If they can't listen and help when it is put in their face, what makes me think that notes going into a box will help? I understand this is just elementary school, but if it is pushed to the back burner at this age, what is going to stop it when they get older," she wrote.