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Mourning GHT family says bullying is everywhere

Kyle Moroney • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:14 AM

“It’s awful to hear that someone would pick on your kid,” Juli said, choking back tears. “We didn’t know he had been bullied until the visitation and kids came up to us and told us.”

David said Tuesday that he vividly remembers April 27. That was the day he came home shortly after Zachary got home from school, and David found his son slumped on his bedroom floor after he had shot himself.

“I was in shock,” David said. “I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t swallow. … It was not real.”

During Zach’s visitation, several of his Grand Haven High School classmates told the Klines that their son was being bullied. The news came as a shock to his parents, as they were unaware of the bullying before their son’s death.

“I know they have it everywhere,” Juli said. “I think it’s time we realize we don’t live in this nice little community — that it doesn’t happen here.”

Bullying has become a growing concern throughout the country. With the evolution of technology, cyber-bullying has progressed to being one of the most common forms of bullying, in addition to verbal remarks that may be equally as damaging.

A controversial anti-bullying measure could be signed into state law this week. Gov. Rick Snyder is likely to sign the bill that will require Michigan schools to adopt anti-bullying policies, his administration said Tuesday, just after the state Senate approved a new version without a clause that critics said would have allowed religious-based verbal harassment.

Having the measure become law would cap a roughly decade-long effort by supporters of the proposal.

The Senate approved the bill 35-2 Tuesday. The House had already passed it, meaning it heads to Snyder’s desk. The Republican governor advocated for the law and is expected to sign it, pending a final review.

“The governor believes bullying at any time, under any circumstances, is wrong —period,” his spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said in a statement.

Public schools will have six months from the new law’s effective date to adopt anti-bullying policies.

The bill does not include disputed language from a previous Senate version, which Democrats had said offered a blueprint for getting away with bullying in schools.

That bill had said it “does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” of a student or school employee. That wording was dropped from the final version after the House wouldn’t agree to it.

Michigan is one of only a few states without a state law requiring anti-bullying policies in schools.

Some lawmakers say the bill isn’t detailed or tough enough to be effective. They want tougher reporting requirements, more protections against cyber-bullying and more detailed lists of reasons why students can’t be bullied — such as sexual orientation, race and weight.

Kevin Epling — whose 14-year-old son, Matt, killed himself after a hazing incident in 2002 — said the measure isn’t perfect, but it is still an important step to crack down on bullying and harassment in schools. The bill will be named “Matt’s Safe School Law.”

“It sends a message across the state that bullying is not to be tolerated in any form,” Epling said Tuesday.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools and Spring Lake Public Schools have already established anti-bullying policies in place for their districts.

Students and staff at Grand Haven High School generated their own anti-bullying campaign earlier this year, acknowledging they will not tolerate bullying in their school.

“I think the new legislation (reiterates) the policies and procedures we already have in place in Grand Haven,” Superintendent Keith Konarska said Tuesday after learning of the bill’s approval in the Senate. “I think it has the potential to create an increased awareness on bullying across our state and that is certainly a good thing.”

The 2010 Grand Haven High School yearbook was dedicated to Zach, who would have been a senior this year.

The Klines said they hope the anti-bullying law is a “good first step” to stomp out bullying in schools.

“What really is going to make a difference is when other kids step up to the plate and help stop bullying,” Juli said. “I think these kids need a safe place to go to and feel comfortable in reporting bullying.”

Since Zach’s death, the Klines have received more than 50 letters from classmates who have nothing but kind words to say about their son.

One student who was having a difficult time dealing with his grandmother’s health issues recalls Zach’s willingness to console him — someone he did not know — in the school hallway. During their conversation, Zach told the teen he had been bullied “a lot,” the unnamed student wrote in his letter to the Klines.

“I’ve always wondered — how could anybody bully someone who is this nice to a total stranger?” the student wrote. “He has changed my life for the better and I’ll always remember him as such. He was a gift to us all.”

The Klines said their son had taken several honors and Advanced Placement classes, and he enjoyed reading and would spend hours in bookstores. He shelved a collection of nearly 200 books in his bedroom — many in rare or first editions.

Zach was part of a group called Think Tank that met after school to discuss various topics, such as religion and politics. The Klines said he also spent a lot of time with his family, including his 15-year-old sister, Christie; and trips to the flea market with his grandmother, Sally. Zach enjoyed fishing and camping trips at various state parks, and visiting family cottages in Pentwater and Greenville, his parents said.

“He was very caring,” Juli said. “Family meant everything to him.”

“He was very affectionate — loved to give hugs,” David added. “He always had a smile and was upbeat.”

Since their son’s death, the Klines have become involved in a suicide prevention awareness group, and said they hope to spread the message that bullying is not to be tolerated.

“Just be careful what you say and when you do,” Juli said. “I don’t think anyone deserves to be tolerated that way — bullied.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Online:

To view House Bill 4163, visit www.legislature.mi.gov

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