I-Team: Polk County School Board is the latest in the Tampa Bay area to face a bullying suit

Family says officials did nothing to stop torment

POINCIANA, Fla. - He's only 11 years old, but his parents say he's been bullied to the point that he has been diagnosed as suicidal.

While many see bullying as just a case of kids being kids, that's not the case for a family that recently moved out of Polk County. They say their lives were changed forever because of bullying.

"He hit me," said the boy. "He kicked me and punched me and pinched. He threw me on the floor. He hit me in the mouth."

Two years ago, the quiet child was coming home with bruises. He told the ABC Action News I-Team that bullies were attacking him every day at school. He claims he told teachers what was happening.

What did the school do?  "Nothing," the boy said.

"They didn't protect my son," his mother said.

The I-Team is not naming the child or his parents to protect his identity.  They claim they filed complaints with Polk County school officials and talked to the principal at Palmetto Elementary School in Poinciana. But the bullying didn't stop, they say. Eventually, the attacks escalated.

"He got so mad he actually pushed my head down and slammed me into the concrete," the boy said.

Doctors said he received a mild concussion.

The boy's health spiraled downwards after that, according to his parents.  He would get nosebleeds from stress.  He cried and begged them not to send him back to Palmetto Elementary.  His parents say, when school officials didn't act and weren't helpful in allowing them to transfer him to another school, they took the extreme measure of moving out of the county.

"I didn't decide to move," the mother said. "I was forced to move."

The parents are also doing something that's becoming more and more common in bullying cases --- they are suing the school board for negligence.

"Someone needs to be held accountable for what's happening to my son," the child's father said.

Once unheard of, today school districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota counties have all been sued for allegedly failing to prevent bullying incidents. In many cases, the school districts have settled or the parents have won.

Sarasota attorney Drake Buckman won a bullying case against the Manatee County School Board in 2009. "We obtained a $283,000 verdict," said Buckman.

A cap on damages in Florida law eventually reduced the verdict to $100,000. Buckman says lawsuits are forcing the school districts to crack down on bullying.

"Local school districts are strapped for money and they are going to have to make choices," Buckman said. "They need to spend the money up front for staffing and training, and really to put the kids first."

Win or lose, it will likely be an uphill road for the 11-year old former Polk County boy. He's at a new school and he says he no longer gets bullied. But his parents were recently told by his therapist just how troubled he is.

"She came out and said, 'He's suicidal,'" said the boy's mother, through tears. "I said, 'What do you mean?' She asked him if he wanted to be here anymore. He said, 'no.'"

"He said, 'I want to be with my family, but I don't want to be here anymore,'" his father said.

The boy told the I-Team that he wasn't angry about the bullying he experienced.

Asked what he was feeling, the boy answered: "Sad."

Polk County school officials say they can't comment on the case because of student privacy laws and the pending lawsuit. Their anti-bullying policy says they review any reported incident of bullying and take appropriate action.

While more attention is being paid to bullying incidents in recent months, statistics from the Florida Department of Education show reports of bullying in schools across the state dropped from more than 13,000 in the 2009-2010 school year to about 12,000 in 2010-2011.

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