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New state voucher program to help bullied students transfer schools

Posted at 10:57 PM, Mar 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-16 22:57:34-04

This week, Florida became the first state to offer bullied students vouchers to transfer schools.

Supporters say students should have the right to an education free from harassment and bullies but opponents also see the program as an attack on public schools.

On Sunday, Governor Rick Scott signed a sweeping education bill which, among other things, creates a new voucher program for victims of bullying or harassment to transfer to a private school.

The new law will also give parents the option of moving to a different public school.

"You hate anybody to be bullied," he told WPTV this week.

The $41 million Hope Scholarship program offers up to $6,800 for parents to transfer their kids to a private school.

"I think every parent ought to have as much choice as possible to make sure their child can get into a school they feel comfortable that their child is going to succeed," said Gov. Scott.

Tony Valencia-Sosa worries about his son who goes to Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach. His son, who he chose not to reveal the identity of, has been bullied for years since elementary school.

"The child, he punched my son on the bus," he said. "I feel very scared for my son. The school is not doing anything."

The boy's aunt, Jessica Dilmore, said lately, bullying from the same child has gotten worse.

"To pick him up crying, you know he's not gonna want to go back the next morning," she said. "It makes you feel like why am I even taking him to this school?"

The family said the boy's bully, who is a classmate, recently threatened him with scissors.

""When dad calls the school and they just push it under the counter -- where's the help to make it seem like it was okay to hold scissors to another child's back?" said Dilmore. 

Dilmore says the voucher is a nice option for the family but they have some concerns.

"What happens when you live out in the middle of nowhere or you don't have transportation to get your son or daughter to that private school," she said. "Wouldn't it make more sense instead of transferring everyone to private schools, to fix the problem in the public schools to begin with?"

The voucher has even caught the eye of the Heartland Institute, a national policy think tank based near Chicago, Illinois. We spoke to Lennie Jarratt, director of the Center for Transforming Education within the Heartland Institute, who said the voucher money can be used to help with transportation costs if the child has to move within public schools.

"There's still a lot of room for growth," he said. "I'm glad somebody's finally doing it. Students shouldn't have to be trapped in a school that's unsafe."

Jarratt said his team is watching how this new law plays out in Florida.

"Definitely watching how Florida does it and be working to see if other states can do the same thing," he said.

According to some estimates as many as 50,000 students are bullied in Florida schools each year.