RIO, Wisconsin (WKOW) -- Thirteen-year-old Riley Best's deep blue eyes, long blonde hair, trim, athletic look, and charming smile make her appear to be a good bet to get votes in a school's "most popular" contest.
Instead, Riley Best, of Rio, has endured a long pattern of being bullied, especially cyber-bullying.
"Facebook, I'd see the name first, if it was one of the bullies' names, I'd delete it," says Riley.
"When Riley was logging into Facebook, and seeing that stuff every day, and run into these kids at the park, and at the pool, it was every day," Best's mother, Tina Gobeli, told 27 News. "I started to see Riley shut down."
In the fall of 2010, Best and Gobeli appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show, and joined others in describing the torment of bullying to a nationwide audience. The program delved into Best's involvement with a youth football team, and how bullies targeted her with taunts of "lesbian" and "slut."
At the time, Best was a student at Lodi Area Middle School. Best told 27 News appearing on the program led to intensified harassment from bullies.
"When they were harassing me, they'd be, 'Go back and cry to Dr. Phil.'"
"I got a lot of backlash from parents," Gobeli said."I guess I let out a dirty little secret."
Gobeli and Best said school officials became indifferent and ineffective in response to Best's reports of bullying. Gobeli conceded her daughter began to act out in school, but claimed it was the product of her helplessness in the face of school-based bullying. Gobeli said officials feared punishing her daughter's tormentors would upset fragile situations with at-risk families, and gave Best mixed messages about being forthcoming about her victimization.
Best's parents decided in March to remove their daughter from school and enroll her in the Rio School District.
Lodi Area Middle School principal Dave Dyb told 27 News the confidentiality of student records prevented him from commenting on Best's experience at the school.
But Dyb defended the approach of school officials to student reports of bullying.
"We do follow our school policy, in which there is progressive discipline (for bullying)."
Lodi School District policy delineates potential punishments: "Students who engage in harassment and bullying... shall be subject to school disciplinary measures consistent with District policies and procedures up to and including suspension, expulsion, and a referral to law enforcement officials for possible legal action."
Dyb told 27 News the school's emphasis was on building student self-esteem, stressing respect, and facilitating inclusion.
An initiative by a leadership group of eighth grade students led to posters on the walls in nearly every school corridor, with messages on the effects of bullying, prevention steps, and an opportunity for students to sign a pledge to stop bullying. Dyb conceded the posters were displayed after Best transferred to Rio, but said the effort was an extension of previous anti-harassment efforts involving students.
Gobeli told 27 News school policies and practices failed to translate into action in her daughter's case.
"I think that they maybe (should have) had harsher consequences. I think they should have gotten parents involved," says Gobeli.
Best transferred into a Rio school system where senior Zak Seipel said he has struggled with being targeted by bullies.
"They would come up to me, and they would be like, 'Hey, gay boy.' Anything they could put "gay" or "faggot" into, they would."
"It would wreck me, literally. There were some days , I wouldn't go to school," says Seipel.
Seipel said he's trained in martial arts, but recognized any attempt to retaliate against his tormentors could result in school punishment.
But Seipel told 27 News after bullies in a truck cruised dangerously close to him as he skateboarded, he decided he needed to speak out.
Seipel's long essay on his experience as a victim, and his call for victims of harassment like himself to break their silence was published in Rio's Shopper newspaper. Seipel told 27 News he received letters of thanks and empathy from other bullying victims, and received an unexpected assurance from an area law enforcement officer of prompt response if he was targeted again.
Seipel said publishing his private struggle achieved the end he desired. "I wanted to help others."
Seipel's essay detailed his resignation at the knowledge reporting bullying episodes to school officials or adults would result in more harassment.
But Seipel said publicizing his past treatment improved his quality of life at school. Seipel is scheduled to graduate next month and attend Oregon State University in the fall.
Best and Gobeli told 27 News Best's experience in Rio's school system has been a marked improvement. But Gobeli said she harbors no illusions her teenage daughter's future will be problem-free.
"I think every school has some sort of bullying issue it's dealing with. I also think that because I went through this, and may have to go through it again, I'm more aware of our rights."
Two Dane County middle schools - DeForest Middle School and McFarland's Indian Mound Middle School - have implemented a web-based harassment reporting system from a Santa Barbara-based company that allows anonymous complaint-filing on bullying incidents.
Spriego.com also features data tracking to identify trends in school cases and expose harassment "hot spots" in school buildings.
Gobeli is one of an apparently small but growing number of area parents who have accessed the court system to obtain legal restraining orders against bullies.
Best said she has no plans to abandon playing football, even if it again makes her a mark for bullies.
"I shouldn't quit doing something I love for them to get what they want," says Best.
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