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What's Up Magazine

Standing Up

Jul 11, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Mark R. Smith

The stories about bullying seem to be more out in the open now. Its reach ranges from the subtle to the brazen; the public hears about it via various avenues, with reports of name calling and intimidation that can progress to naked fear and physical attacks.

Add the element of social media, and bully’s avenues of choice have never been more accessible. On the other hand, a victim from Arundel High School threatened suicide online last year if it didn’t stop. Then there was the more recent shooting at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County that was a response to bullying.

The problem often arises at middle schools, when kids between the ages of 12 and 14 start coming of age in some wonderful, confusing, and sometimes upsetting ways.

Bullying is nothing new and even people who are trying to stop it have admitted that, despite their efforts, doing so will be a tall order. But the teachers and administrators in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) say the school system has become more proactive in combating the issue.

Getting Engaged

There has been “a sincere, serious effort” to address the issues of bullying and suspensions for all students, says Laura Groo, a sixth grade language arts teacher at Southern Middle School. Groo says, “The question is, ‘What’s the best way to communicate with these students on a culturally relevant way?’”

Much of the problem, she says, is the socio-economic connection. “We’ve researched the connection between the higher percentage of students who misbehave in school and lower socio-economic backgrounds. As a community, we need to talk about these issues.”

Generally speaking, teachers and administrators are trying to use various resources to deal with the issue.

“We know what works: smaller class sizes, active hands-on learning, arts integration and project-based learning, because those types of learning engage students,” Groo says.

The hoped for result would be students who can write well, read critically, communicate effectively, and collaborate with other people and groups across cultures. But the schools alone can’t stop bullying. “[Bullies] also need help from family, churches, community groups, and boys and girls clubs, in addition to direct instruction,” she suggests.

It’s Not O.K.

The first step toward rectifying the problem is to “educate the community about bullying,” Groo says. “The second step is to get in agreement that it’s everybody’s business, and the third is to teach the children to be neutral—or to step up and take a stand and say it’s not O.K.

“The bottom line is we need structure and consequences,” she says. “The AACPS has done a good job by offering a handbook that details consequences for classroom disruption and insubordination. And [they’ve let it be known that] if a student lays a hand on another student, that’s a suspension.”

If collaboration is the key, the folks at Bates Middle School are unlocking the door with its mentoring program. It began when Kenneth Stark, a behavioral specialist who works at the in-school suspension room, was approached by administrators to start a group that meets at lunchtime.

“Some teachers would consider these students to be difficult to teach,” says Laura Casciato, a math teacher who moderates the group, “But these kids are not the kids who have been suspended. They ask to be in the group or we invite them. They’re just struggling with various issues.”

There has been some success in the collaboration. “Sometimes we even meet on days that our group isn’t scheduled,” she says. “We asked them basic questions about responsibility and respect, and learning how to love themselves so they can exchange that emotion with others.”

Some of the information exchanged can be eye-opening. “Their difference in perspectives from what they thought their friends saw in them, as to what the friends actually did see, could be quite stark,” Casciato says.

All told, she thinks the program has been very beneficial. “There are boys who sit in that room and they get emotional because they respect where the girls are coming from,” she says, “and once they figure themselves out, they can more easily relate to others.”

Grassroots Effort

On the other side of that coin is the two-year-old, student-led initiative that is overseen by the guidance department at Central Middle School.

Called a bully awareness crew, the group boasted 100 students during its first year in 2010–11. To demonstrate their concerns, students make announcements over the public address system, sing songs, sign petitions to prevent bullying, and sponsor events during National Bully Awareness Week, which is in October.

“I think 99 percent of our kids are well behaved,” says Milie Beall, the school’s principal, “but every school has a core of students who get want power over other kids by making them feel bad. There also seems to be a group of kids who are less self-assured than others that can get picked on. These are young adolescents who are facing their struggles and we’re a typical middle school, so we’re not exempt.

“It’s an issue we try to stay out in front of. But,” she says, “If you were one of the kids who are being bullied, you would disagree with me.”

From the Top

As for the AACPS, Coordinator of School Counseling Lucia Martin pointed out the 2009 state of Maryland mandate that requires all school systems have a bullying prevention and intervention policy; as a part of that regulation, the county has offered school-wide lessons and assemblies to create greater awareness for students.

On that note, the AACPS allows each school to establish its own programs to fight bullying.

“We do not mandate particular programs since the needs of our schools are different, but each must establish its own program and focus,” Martin says. “In addition, however, we also provide intervention for students who have been bullied, and those who have bullied, as well.”

Noting that the AACPS web site has a section dedicated to the prevention of bullying [which includes a survey and a reporting form], she also cited various research that indicates that those who bully as young people are more apt to get in trouble with illegal substances and the justice system as adults.

What is changing, she says, it that bullying used to be seen as a normal part of growing up. “But now [school systems] are more aware of it and want to ensure that people are treated with respect,” Martin says. “In addition, we have worked with parent groups to explain what bullying is and what it isn’t, and what they should and expect that we will do to support their kids.”