Breaking the code

October 20, 2003

AT THE PRIVATE Hannah More School in Baltimore, counselors and teachers have used a paper heart to demonstrate how bullying hurts: each demeaning jab or put-down rent that heart a little more.

At 150 public schools, the state sponsors training in community-building behaviors to foster cooperation and prevent violence; many other schools use character education and anger management training to promote safety. And in Anne Arundel County soon, thanks to a new federal grant, there will be an anti-bullying curricula, and a toll-free hotline by which public and private school students can report harassers.

It's a shame, but increasingly a necessity, that basic civility must be taught as a classroom staple. That's what it takes nowadays to ensure an environment conducive to learning, and to halt the mean-spiritedness endemic in society at the schoolhouse door. Bullyproofing isn't an educational fad. It's an antidote to violence, intended to defuse the type of excessive teasing and ostracization that contributes to rare tragedies like the Columbine shootings and the suicide of 12-year-old J. Daniel Scruggs in Connecticut - and the more common outrage right here in Maryland, of children skipping school to avoid being "banked."

The most effective programs foster inclusion and tolerance by addressing bystanders and witnesses as well as bullies and their victims, and can reduce bullying behavior by as much as 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These are aimed at breaking the don't-tattle code of silence, and giving teachers and students alike a language and an ethic for standing up for the vulnerable among them.

Although school violence has declined in recent years, many high school students surveyed nationally still perceive that their schools are unsafe. Victims of bullying are too distracted to be good students. Parents and schools together can teach bullies-in-the-making healthier ways to prove their might than by abusing another; or get counseling for a child whose mean streak has deeper roots.

Many states, most recently Connecticut and New Jersey, have passed laws requiring schools to deter bullying. Maryland's public school safety code says schools must be places where children are free from harassment; as a result, many school districts' safety plans already include anti-bullying or related programs for at least some of their schools.

Every Maryland school should have deterrents in place, and the resources needed to reinforce the lessons: Too many people, parents and school staff included, still believe it's not a problem, or perhaps not their problem, when kids pick on each other - until it escalates to violence. But then, of course, it is too late.

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