WMBF Investigates a mother's fight against bullying

WMBF Investigates a mother's fight against bullying

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - There's no doubt the problem of bullying is real in our children's schools, but is it being ignored?

Twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick, 15-year-old Amanda Todd and just this month, 12-year-old Celeste Mills of Beaufort County: these kids were being bullied so severely, they felt their only choice was to take their own lives. WMBF News' Heather Biance investigated the epidemic of bullying as a local family fights to make sure their son doesn't become a tragic statistic.

At 11-years-old, this shy, 5-foot-4-inch tall, 239-pound boy is dealing with his own kind of war zone.

"It made me feel really sad," says Zachary Gill.

The Gill family claims Zachary's bullying started last school year at Aynor Elementary by an unlikely person, his fourth-grade teacher.

"After she called me a beached whale, it felt like everybody in the classroom was sitting there laughing about it," explains Zachary, now in fifth grade.

It's been nearly two years since that incident, and things have only gotten worse. Zach is now finding himself in the crosshairs of his peers, both verbally and physically.

His mother Michelle says, "Three out of five mornings, he throws a temper tantrum. When he is in a ball sobbing uncontrollably, tears running down his face, terrified to get out of the car, those are the days that I know there's something going on at school."

Zachary has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and is now being monitored for PTSD. Michelle feels her desperate pleas, and Zachary's safety, have been pushed aside time and time again.

"They keep saying, 'We're so sorry that you blew this out of proportion. We're so sorry that he took this the wrong way,' but, I mean, it's my job to protect him," says Michelle.

Anchor Heather Biance took those concerns to the Horry County School District for clarity on the situation.

"Can you explain why you can't fully, on camera, combat these allegations?" Biance asks district spokeswoman Teal Harding.

"Our hands are tied - we have a legal obligation to protect the privacy of the students involved," Harding answered. "What's very frustrating on our part is that it would help to add depth, to add clarity to an issue if we were able to tell you our side of the story in terms of what steps and measures we had taken."

Michelle says it was those steps, however, that fell short, taking months to address bullying incidents on his school bus and around campus. Although delayed, some issues were handled. Others are still not resolved.

"I want Horry County to revisit its bullying policies," Michelle says. "I reported eight different incidents to the school last year, and none of those went to the student affairs office, and they're supposed to."

Heather Biance asks Harding, "Do you think that it's possible that things can fall through the cracks? There are policies in place but it's not perfect."

"We have full responsibility that if we have an allegation, we investigate that allegation," Harding responds. "All of them will not be obvious. All of them will not be provable. Not all of them will have witnesses. We have an obligation to exhaust that, and if there is evidence of such, then we have a responsibility to act."

Data requested from the school district shows that there have been 157 reported incidents of bullying in the 2013-2014 school year, which is up slightly from the 149 incidents reported in the 2012-2013 school year. This breaks down to less than 1 percent of the student body in Horry County.

"Would you say bullying is in issue in Horry County?" asks Heather Biance.

"I would say bullying is an issue everywhere," Harding answers. "It is an undesirable, unacceptable social behavior, but what I do want to say is that it doesn't start in August and end in June. It doesn't start at 7 a.m. and end at 4 p.m., and it isn't exclusive to children to kids 5 to 18."

It's a complicated social issue that continues to plague the halls of every school.

With a rash of school shootings in the 90s, it was discovered that 75 percent of the school shooters were chronic targets of bullies. For the first time, bullying came to the attention of the world as a problem.

Dr. Andrew Terranova, a professor in the psychology department of Coastal Carolina University, has conducted his own research on the topic.

"All of my research suggests that once you become the established target of bullies, there is not a whole lot the children can do by themselves to make it stop," Terranova explains. "They can make it worse, but there aren't things they can do to make it stop. They need help from their peers, teachers, parents, school administrators and staff at the schools."

Dr. Terranova says the United States is actually behind other countries when it comes to research on bullying, and because research on social issues is slow, our understanding of the long-term impacts is completely uncharted territory.

Which brings us to Keith Shepard.

"When I was 8 years old, I loved playing with matches," he says. It was Christmas Day, 1968. Self-proclaimed pyromaniac Keith and his friend decided it was the day they were going to set a truck's gas tank on fire.

"Fire arched through the skies, and I was on fire for a couple of minutes. I was trying to put myself out just rolling around. The whole time I was just burning alive," recalls Keith.

Keith suffered second, third, and fourth degree burns on 40 percent of his body. It was touch and go. He was quarantined for six months inside a hospital room and had to undergo 16 excruciating skin graft surgeries.

"I was taunted relentlessly and called every name in the book, and it just made me feel like a freak. It wasn't just young kids, it was adults too," says Keith.

The stares and teasing took a toll as Keith found himself in a dark place.

"I went into a bar one night of a particular person I didn't like, and he made some comments about me being drunk and my scars, and I went and got a shotgun and shot his bar up," Keith says. "I'm not proud of that, but that's how I was dealing with things, just with anger and violence. You hate yourself, not just the people who were doing it, but hating yourself, hating life. I didn't want to live."

Today, Keith has learned to accept his past and considers himself lucky to be alive.

"I'm pretty much an exception to the rule because I've come out on the other side," he adds.

For Michelle, she worries if Zachary will do the same when he hits his breaking point.

"I worry about him because there comes a point where you can't take but so much. There is no fixing Zachary, but it we can stop another child from going through this, stop another teacher from doing this, then I think my effort and fight have been worth it," says Michelle.

After months of back and forth with the school district, Michelle tells me they did grant Zachary "Homebound" status, meaning he is no longer going to school each day and has a private tutor. It seems to be helping, because he's back on honor roll.

We previously reported that House Bill 4413, also known as the "Report-A-Bully Act," would require every school district to have a website where someone can anonymously report acts of harassment, intimidation and school bullying, and also sets more requirements on school districts for replying to these allegations.

Representative Phil Owens, the Chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, says the bill has stalled while two representatives hash out the language. It's possible a vote could take place in the House next week if differences are reconciled. However, because May 1 was the crossover date, that means that even if the House passes the bill this session, it wouldn't be picked up until next session. There's one other speed bump. Because this is election year, all bills that are left in limbo this session will have to be re-filed and start the legislative process again.

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