Choice scholarship saved life of bullying victim


The note was written on a torn piece of paper slipped through a slot in Hannah Waibel’s locker. When she opened the door, it fell to the floor.

You should just kill yourself. You’re not wanted here.

Hannah cried as she retreated to the bathroom to call her mom. The bullying at her neighborhood middle school in Arcadia had been relentless, but this crossed a red line and triggered Hannah’s darkest moment.

“Maybe they’re right,” she thought, warm tears staining the crumpled note.

Jennifer Gross and daughter Hannah Waibel are all smiles these days at Faith Community Christian Academy in Arcadia, Florida.

She contemplated suicide for a second and it scared the heck out of her. But the next emotion she felt was anger. Minutes before she found the note, Hannah had left a two-hour meeting with her parents and the school resource officer. He had assured them he would fix the situation.

Hannah’s mom, Jennifer Gross, stormed back to the school to withdraw her daughter. Hannah was already in the office filling out her 25th incident report in the first month of her seventh-grade year.

More than 47,000 public school students in Florida were bullied or assaulted in some way in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the most recent state statistics. Spurred by those numbers, state lawmakers are considering a new type of scholarship, the Hope Scholarship, to give victims a way out.

In Hannah’s case, a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students scholarship saved her.

It allowed her to enroll in Faith Community Christian Academy, one of two private schools in Arcadia, a small town at the heart of Desoto County.

“I couldn’t stay,” said Hannah, chin quivering, voice cracking as she recounted her story. “Suicide is scary. You can never take it back.”

She and her mom share the same dirty blond hair, dark brown eyes and wary smile. They were determined to find safety above all else. Hannah’s grades in elementary school were excellent, but middle school was about survival. She got C’s and D’s.

“She really didn’t care anymore,” Jennifer said. “Didn’t want to be there.”

What started in sixth grade with adolescent dramas between on-and-off friends, turned into excommunication and worse in seventh grade.

Hannah isn’t sure why she became a target of girls she once called friends. She wasn’t born and raised in Arcadia, which made her an outsider. She was also pretty and well dressed, which seemed to explain why they shouted “slut” and “whore” at her.

“I was an outcast,” Hannah said.

Having no friends made things worse. The isolation was devastating.

Harassment came in the form of shouts in the hallway, mutterings in the classroom, text messages from random phone numbers, messages on social media. Hannah was repeatedly threatened for filing incident reports. Usually the gist of it was: “You’re no good” and “Why are you here?”

It didn’t get too physical – a shoulder here, a shove there, a stack of books knocked to the ground – but it still hurt. Yet nothing ever happened to her bullies. The note in the locker was the final straw.

Jennifer, a former chef at a nursing home and later a stay-at-home mom who married a fire sprinkler installer, knew about Faith Community and the Step Up scholarship. She had looked it up years before, when her oldest daughter, Chelsea, suffered through the same kind of bullying at the same school.

Back then, Chelsea was unable to attend because of transportation issues – the family had just one vehicle. This time, when Jennifer called principal Joni Stephens to enroll Hannah, the school was full.

Jennifer detailed Hannah’s ordeal. She begged. Tears fell on both ends of the phone. It was too late in the school year to get a scholarship, but Stephens had never turned anyone away.

“I knew I was going to make room,” she said. “It’s not about the money. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.”

The school is only a few short blocks from the district school, but it felt like a new universe to Hannah.

“She was very quiet, very shy,” Stephens recalled. “She wouldn’t look at you in the face. You could tell she had been emotionally damaged. She didn’t trust anybody.”

In her first two weeks, the unthinkable happened.

Hannah was sitting on a stage in the cafeteria when a bigger, older girl started punching her and dragged her off the stage by her hair. She tried to defend herself, but school officials quickly intervened.

As she sat shaking in the front office, waiting for her mom to arrive, she also saw how Stephens handled the issue on the spot. Two lunch ladies came in and described what happened, confirming Hannah did nothing to provoke the fight.

It turned out the attack wasn’t random. The older girl was a cousin of one of Hannah’s old bullies. She was suspended for a week and later transferred.

After what she had been through at her previous school, Hannah was amazed by the response. Slowly but surely, her frayed nerves recovered. Her confidence returned.

With a Step Up scholarship starting in eighth grade, Hannah soared to the honor roll. Now 16, she has accelerated her learning to combine 10th and 11th grades in the current school year, and is on track to graduate next year as valedictorian or salutatorian.

She’s also thinking about college and an apartment.

“It makes me feel grown up,” she said. “From everything I went through to graduating early, it makes me proud.”

Hannah still runs into her bullies at Walmart or the restaurant where she works part-time as a hostess. They still lob insults and threats, but now Hannah brushes them off and walks away smiling.

Her secret? She uses it as motivation now.

“I just want to show everyone that did me wrong that I’m better than that,” she said.

About First Assembly Christian Academy

The school opened in 2010 with 12 students. It now has 125, including 73 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses a self-paced curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), and all high school graduates earn an accredited diploma through dual-enrollment at Lighthouse Christian Academy. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is administered annually. Tuition is $7,000 a year.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

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