Schools, parents try to rein in bullying

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,David Sherfinski

Reports of bullying are rising in parts of the Washington region as kids find new ways to pick on each other -- off the radar of even the most watchful parents and school officials.

In Maryland, schools reported 1,686 incidents in the 2008-2009 school year -- an increase of 392 reported incidents from 2007-2008.

"The number of incidents reported in Maryland represents two reports filed per 1,000 enrolled students," said a report prepared bythe State Department of Education and presented to the General Assembly this year. That number is likely far short of the reality, the report added.

In Virginia, thousands of bullying cases have occurred in recent years, according to the state department of education. In Fairfax County alone, for example, there were more than 1,200 reported incidents during the 2006-2007 school year.

At Gaithersburg's Lakelands Park Middle School, two students were arrested in April for threatening students and staff via Facebook, according to Montgomery County police. Parents reported the students were eighth-graders, and they used the Facebook moniker "Ur Worst Enemy."

"I would have to say it's new ground," said police spokesman C. Thomas Jordan. "As technology advances, you're in the age of social networking."

Kathy Mattison, who has two children at Lakelands Park, commended the school for responding with a letter about the incidents and a follow-up phone call. But the preponderance of reports about cruel and dangerous online behavior has forced Mattison to monitor her children's Internet use.

"We bring it up all the time," she said. "As parents we friend each other's kids on Facebook in order to keep an eye."

The Maryland legislature has been taking steps to address the issue. This year, the General Assembly passed legislation to curb gangs in schools, but the law has implications for bullying, too. Specifically, one bill increases information sharing between school officials and police on "problem" kids.

Maryland's Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005 requires county school boards to report incidents of harassment or intimidation against students to the state department of education. Parents have complained, however, that counties are reluctant to create strong policies for fear that high numbers of incidents reflect badly upon the administration.

In D.C. Public Schools, perennial school violence has often overshadowed day-to-day bullying, but students say it's an enormous problem.

Gregory, a wiry ninth-grader at a charter school in Northeast D.C., said that on a scale of one to 10, the problem of bullying is a 10.

"Sometimes, people are just playing. But bullies try to take over you, or they take your money, or something else you own," he said. "The teachers don't do much about it."

Beverly Blake, a senior at Northeast's Eastern High School, said that bullying in earlier grades over qualities like skin color and sexuality has led her to build a wall around herself socially.

"It used to get to me -- I used to go home and cry," she said. "But now, I don't show my immaturity, I don't show my flaws."

The D.C. Council is weighing anti-bullying measures, but It takes the entire universe of a child to combat the problem, said Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist who deals with child trauma.

"It's not a one-stop fix. A law isn't a magic bullet."

As exemplified by the case in Gaithersburg, new technology is limiting the extent to which students can escape from the torment, Goodman said.

It used to be, someone would throw a kid's books on the ground or whisper rumors about them.

"Now, what you have is you have your phone, you have the Internet. You don't escape it. It's not like there's a safety zone."

 

lfabel@washingtonexaminer.com

dsherfinski@washingtonexaminer.com

Reported bullying incidents   

 

Jurisdiction; 2005-06; 2006-07; 2007-08; 2008-09

Montgomery County;137; 77; 79; 127

Prince George's County; 52; 24; 54; 77

Prince William County; 632; 237; 406; 435

Fairfax County; 613; 1,218; 458; 510

Alexandria; 36; 81; 60; 106

Loudoun County; 58; 177; 117; 143

Arlington; 28; 64; 23; 32

Sources: Maryland State Department of Education, Virginia Department of Education

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