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Updated: 08/12/2014 12:51:30PM

School board candidates spar on bullying

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League of Women's Voters President Sue Schultz questions school board candidates. From left is incumbent for District 3 Hazel Sellers and her opponent Randy Wilkinson, District 6 incumbent Debra Smith Wright and her opponent Lynn Wilson and District 7 incumbent Tim Harris and his opponent Lisa Bone Miller.


Lynn Wilson (right) talks during Tuesday's School Board candidate forum at the Neil Combee Administration Building. To his left is his opponent in the District 6 race Debra Smith Wright.


School Board District 3 candidate Randy Wilkinson emphasizes the behavior problem in the schools Tuesday night during a political forum at the Neil Combee Administration Complex. To his left is his opponent incumbent Hazel Sellers.


School Board candidate Lynn Wilson (left) talks with circuit judge candidate Joe Helms Tuesday night at the political forum the League of Women Voters sponsored at the Neil Combee Administration Complex.


School Board candidate and incumbent for District 6 seat Tim Harris talks Tuesday night during the political forum at the Neil Combee Administration Complex. To his right is his opponent Lisa Bone Miller.


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In dealing with a question on how to combat bullying, candidates for the Polk County School Board said the district has much to do to accomplish something, while incumbents maintained it is a hard issue to deal with because it has gotten more far reaching.

“Currently we set a system but we don’t have the numbers,” candidate Lisa Bone Miller said at Tuesday’s forum that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters. “We had a tragedy last year that set us to retroactively hire people.”

She, who is running against incumbent Tim Harris, added policies are different school to school in dealing with bullying and it makes it harder to deal with.

Candidate Lynn Wilson said, who is facing incumbent Debra Smith Wright in the Aug. 26 election, said, “I’ve seen schools go from A to D. As leadership changes and there is signficantly less bullying in schools that are higher performing. So when you get to an A level that problem can be reduced.”

His opponent felt the issue was deeper than that and much harder to solve. In fact, with as much as bullying has grown from one person picking on another and delving further into electronics and away from school, she questioned how much of it can be solved.

“I can’t tell you we can’t solve this,” she said. “Bullying is human nature.”

She said the district can set policies and define bullying, but for parents to understand exactly what bullying is sometimes falls short of what it really is, she said without elaborating.

District 3 incumbent Hazel Sellers said the issue is complex and the addition of technology has made it moreso. She said more information to teachers on recognizing the signs is necessary and while the school district has several ways to inform students and parents not enough is being done. More community involvement is necessary and while Sheriff Grady Judd has helped the school district with public appearances more still has to be done.

She also expressed the problem isn’t just about the victim.

“Kids that do bullying are having issues also,” she said. “We have to resolve to help them.”

Randy Wilkinson, her opponent, said discipline is one of the biggest reasons he got into the school board race. A member of the school board in the 1990s, he said while he now substitutes teaches in the district, he runs into discipline problems.

He favors a uniform policy and mentioned the problem of violent acts by children is shocking. Mentioning that a 15-year-old in Lakeland was recently arrested for pulling a gun, “And they’re bringing (this behavior) to school.”

He added with cell phones being a “primary agent” of bullying he finds it hard to believe that in changes to rules this year, the district has allowed students to use cell phones more liberally. Previously cell phones could be used during school for school purposes or at specific times. Now some restrictions have been lifted.

Harris, the incumbent running against Miller for the District 7 seat, said engaging students is a possible answer to cutting down on bullying, but for the most part, people coming together to address it and then tackle the problem.

He said as a classroom teacher when he kept students engaged in activity they were fewer problems. Now this has to be done outside the classroom. He said the district is working on the problem and last year hired staff to deal specifically with bullying but it has to go beyond the district.

“We all need to come together,” he said.

And on the subject of coming together, the candidates all felt the community – meaning the business community and the parents – have to become more involved in the school district to become successful.

Sellers said with the school district starting Alignment Polk, she saw how in Nashville, the involvement of the community helped turn around the district. Here, Alignment Polk was funded by the school board last month. With it, Sellers said she hopes more community input.

“We don’t get as many parents out (to school meetings) as we would like,” she said. “We’ve never been pleased.”

But, she said, in seeing how Nashville has worked out and going to some meetings here, it “turned the Nashville public school system around.”

“For me, Alignment Polk is being brought forward and I think it’s our best hope,” she said.

Miller contended Alignment Polk is a good idea, but she was curious about the cost of it. However, she said engaging more of the community is a must and the district should look to where it is working, like the Lake Wales Charter School system where the community is involved in the school district.

Harris contended more needs to be done to bring in business and the community and in seeing how the Nashville Alignment works it can be done.

“We can’t do it alone,” he said. “Business needs to be in and we need to encourage our principals and teachers to get parents involved.”

Wilson said there is success here already the school district can look at.

“If we look around the county we can see in the charter schools in Lake Wales there is a success because in a large part the community participates,” he said. He added in Winter Haven, which is where is he from, schools are starting to use that as a platform and businesses are getting more involved with the schools.

“They’re willing to do it, but the school board has to reach out to them,” he said.

School Board members serve four-year terms and are paid $40,135 per year. They will be elected to their four-year terms in the Tuesday, Aug. 26 primary election and will not appear in the general election in November. Early voting begins Saturday, Aug. 16.

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