Armed with her sister's heartfelt letter in hand, Amber Harshbarger stood in the office of Brown Middle School in Ravenna to educate her classmates about bullying.
Her sister, Samantha Harshbarger had written about living with strabismus -- a disorder that makes her eyes weak -- a seizure disorder and autism. She told her classmates that she is "not dumb or stupid" but doesn't learn the same way as everybody else.
"I am different," Samantha said in her letter. "I may not be like you, but I still have feelings ... I am a girl who has goals and expectations for myself -- just like the rest of you."
School officials told students that the lesson wouldn't be their last one on the subject, saying that classroom activities would come after spring break.
But Samantha only received negative feedback from fellow students, who laughed at her as she walked down the hall and said, "Nobody cares about you."
"She is completely crushed," said her mother, Kanisha Chabra. "She doesn't even want to go back to school."
Chabra said she is considering placing her daughter in a school where all students have a form of autism.
As school districts around Portage County seek ways to address bullying, concerned parents, worried that the policies aren't enough to prevent harm to their children, are considering other options, including private schools and charter schools.
"In days past, we all knew the bully was the biggest kid on the playground, and we knew which kids were being bullied because we could see the black eye on their face," said Rootstown Superintendent Andrew Hawkins. "Now with technology, you don't always see it. But those internal scars are still there."
Hawkins said his district hosted a parents' night in February to educate the community about bullying, and how parents can address the concept at home. The session came too late for Bonnie Klusty, who pulled her son, Justice, out of Rootstown Middle School in January.
Klusty, who had two sons go through Rootstown schools, said her older son who has since graduated still recalls the abuse he suffered at the hands of other students.
For the past three years, Justice had been making similar complaints, which worsened when he entered sixth grade.
"Middle school is the worst," his mother said.
Bonnie Klusty took her concerns to the Rootstown Board of Education, advocating for cameras to capture the bullying and for parents to become better advocates of kindness.
"I said, 'It's the parents,'" she said. "We need to be asking our kids what they did for somebody that was kind today. I ask my kids that question every day."
She said she didn't get the response she hoped for from the board or other parents. After finding a letter on her son's computer that said Justice planned to kill himself, she enrolled him in Lake Center Christian School in Hartville.
Bonnie Klusty said she was "very impressed" with the school's strict policy on bullying, and brought it to Rootstown, suggesting the district use it as a model.
Superintendent Dennis Honkala of Ravenna said his district has a "zero tolerance" policy on bullying, but that doesn't mean the most-severe consequences will be handed out for every offense.
"It means that we won't tolerate it, and there will be consequences," he said. "Everything has to be done on a case by case basis."
Ohio school districts have been required by state law to have bullying policies in place since the 1990s, Honkala said, and Ravenna's policy was last updated in 2012. The district has many policies in place to address bullying, including school-wide assemblies and posters to raise awareness.
Honkala said he was concerned the concerns in Samantha Harshbarger's case weren't reported to administrators before her mother took it to the board of education and the media.
"We can't do anything about it if we don't know," he said.
At Suffield Elementary School, Principal Shawn Bookman said she's learned that kindness is the key.
Bookman said the school had previously hosted educational programs on bullying. But they soon found out that kids would focus on negative behavior and "every little thing that happened was, 'So and so's bullying me.' "
This year, second grade teacher Denise Palminson volunteered to run a "Kindness Club." Once a month before the school day starts, students do projects that encourage kindness. The students wear yellow "Be Kind" t-shirts and proclaim that "Kindness is the new cool."
Over Christmas break, the students made up bags with homemade cookies that were handed out by the Suffield Food Cupboard.
They also made bird feeders, learned about the importance of being kind to animals, and were given gold "coins," which they were instructed to give away when they observed a "random act of kindness" being practiced.
"It kind of makes it special to show kindness every day," she said.
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