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County signs off on anti-bullying program

Posted: December 9, 2008 10:33 p.m.
Updated: December 10, 2008 4:59 a.m.
 
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors jump-started the effort to change Project 51 from one man's dream to education policy Tuesday.

The board voted unanimously to direct the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council to implement the plan in the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District.

The council will report back to the board of supervisors in 60 days.

Project 51 is an anti-bullying program designed by Jeff Lasater. Lasater's son Jeremiah, a 14-year-old freshman, shot and killed himself in the bathroom at Vasquez High School Oct. 20. Jeremiah was taunted by other kids at the school and bullying might have played a factor in the suicide, Jeff Lasater said.

"I think this is great," he said, minutes after Project 51 was approved.

"Our office worked closely with Mr. Lasater following the tragedy. We want to support his vision and the legacy of his son," said Tony Bell, spokesman for County Fifth District Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

The Education Coordinating Council will begin working with the Acton-Agua Dulce district immediately to implement the program, said Helen Berberian, Antonovich's children's deputy.

The Education Coordinating Council was formed in November 2004 to meet the educational needs of teens in the county probation system.

The agency is usually at the forefront of disciplinary policy so it was tagged for the job, Berberian said.

"This lets us go to work, because now we have the backing of the supervisors," Lasater said.

The support of the supervisors doesn't mean the school district is forced to adopt the program.

"The district isn't compelled to do anything," Berberian said.

The supervisors gave the council and the district direction on how to proceed and a mandate to report on its progress in 60 days, she said.

Project 51 includes a toll-free number for kids or parents to call when they witness bullying. Callers can leave the name and contact information of the school where the bullying occurs.

The project will ask the school to conduct an internal investigation into the incident.

If the school fails to conduct the investigation within 24 hours, Project 51 will send a representative to the school to meet with administrators to request an investigation.

Project 51 is a fresh idea, but it will use some old ideas to make the program stronger, Bell said.

"We asked the coordinating council to look at the success of other programs," he said.

The William S. Hart Union High School District's Safe Schools Ambassador Program is one of the models county officials might want to look at, said Greg Lee, district diversity coordinator.

"You can get a lot of good use out of the safe school program in a school district that size," Lee said. "You can change culture."

The Safe Schools Ambassador Program teaches students to recognize and stamp out bullying on their own and how bullying poisons the culture of the school, he said.

The Acton-Agua Dulce board reached a consensus Nov. 14 to adopt the bullying outreach portions of Project 51, including the planned hotlines for students and parents.

The school board balked at the discipline portion of the plan that calls for long-term suspension for a single offense and expulsion for repeat offenses because it was inconsistent with the California Education Code, said Mark Distaso, school board president.

But that's about to change.

California Assembly Bill 86 will allow school districts to suspend and recommend expulsion for bullies beginning Jan. 1. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill Sept. 30.

"In light of AB 86, the supervisors want to learn from existing programs, learn from Project 51 and use that knowledge to address bullying throughout the county," Bell said.

There is no timetable for expanding the program to other districts, he said.

The Acton-Agua Dulce district will vote on whether to adopt Project 51 on Thursday, said Deborah Rocha, school board member. She wasn't aware of the supervisors' Tuesday decision but said the district is willing to work with anyone to stop bullying.

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