By most regards, John F. Kennedy High School is a good high school in Silver Spring. The overwhelming majority of students pass state exams with flying colors, and 82 percent graduate within four years. Later this month, students will dress in university gear to celebrate College Readiness Day.
So why do only half of Kennedy students feel safe in school?
On just-released surveys, students in even the Washington suburbs' best schools say bullying remains a serious problem at a level undetected by parents and teachers. Some campuses suspended students hundreds of times for endangering school safety in the 2011-12 school year.
(See a chart of incidents in Montgomery and Fairfax schools)
At Kennedy, only 53 percent of students agreed with the statement "I feel safe at school," while students were suspended 131 times for fighting, making threats, stealing, disrupting class, attacking others, or possessing dangerous substances or weapons. At least one-quarter of students at 22 of Montgomery County's 64 public middle and high schools couldn't say they felt safe at school, up from 19 in the previous year.
In Fairfax County, more than half of students admitted to bullying others in the past year on a survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. The numbers were up for every grade over the 2010-11 school year, with eighth-graders most likely to bully others at 56 percent. Five percent of students said they brought a weapon other than a handgun to school that year, while just 1.2 percent said they brought a gun to class.
The majority of students at 30 of Montgomery County's 38 middle schools said bullying was a problem, while the number of confirmed bullying incidents increased by 56 percent in the high schools and by 17 percent in the middle schools.
"How could it not be alarming, right? And when you combine that with social media and the kinds of stories we hear about every day about kids being bullied, it's of course alarming," said Ursula Hermann, director of student services for Montgomery County Public Schools.
Hermann, a former middle school principal, said she believes more students are reporting bullying thanks to efforts to increase awareness. One middle school is starting a student leadership team against bullying, while the school system is looking to start a workgroup that would connect schools with a bank of anti-bullying resources from across the nation.
Fairfax County Public Schools is implementing school-based plans to fight bullying this year, after spending last year on "self-reflection," said Mary Ann Panarelli, director of intervention and prevention services for the school system. Fairfax County is urging principals to consider is a "victim approach," or encouraging students to tell adults about a student who is being bullied, rather than reporting a student who is doing the bullying.
"The kids are saying, 'Well maybe he was just kidding,' and they're not comfortable saying, 'This is a bully,' but they are connected to the idea of 'Someone's being hurt and here's a way I can help this kid,' " Panarelli said.
But parents want to see the schools go further. Susan Burkinshaw advocates against bullying for the Montgomery County's PTA, and says it can be difficult to convince lawmakers that bullying and violence is a problem in such a high-performing school system.
"If you think we don't have a problem because we haven't had any major incidents, you're crazy," said Burkinshaw, whose children attend Kingsview Middle School and Northwest High School, which had the most out-of-school suspensions for safety issues in the county. "There was a school shooting in Baltimore. There was a person in Prince George's County who threatened to blow up his office. We're not insulated from that here."