Exposing bullies

May 14, 2006

As many students feel intimidated and harassed by their peers, schools in Maryland are taking bullying more seriously. Howard County's school system, to its credit, recently voted to add bullying to behaviors that could lead to expulsion. But along with the tougher stance, some county schools are also tackling the problem by promoting tolerance and greater awareness of words that heal rather than hurt. Whatever the approach, schools should not allow bullies to prevent other students from learning or traveling safely to and from school.

Bullying is generally characterized by repeated, intentional and negative actions that can result from an imbalance of power. It occurs most often among middle school students, between ages 11 and 14; in Maryland, a typical victim is 12 and a typical instigator is 13. Concerned that bullying was on the rise, the General Assembly last year passed a law requiring educators to pay closer attention. The State Department of Education created complaint forms for students or their parents to fill out about bullying behavior; local districts tally the complaints to keep better track of incidents.

During the first six-month report from the districts, nearly 1,060 incidents were recorded, helping to establish a baseline for progress. The majority of incidents occurred on school property and involved verbal abuse, such as name calling, teasing, critical remarks or threatening words. Increasingly, though, students are bullying their peers on the Internet, through cell phones or with other electronic means. About one-third of incident complaints involved physical acts, including hitting, kicking, shoving, throwing something or pulling hair.

But the numbers also point to the importance of careful interpretation. Of the state's 24 school districts, Frederick County reported the most incidents, at 137, and Somerset County had the highest rate per 1,000 enrolled students, at 13.7. Yet both counties have systemwide programs that emphasize bullying awareness and prevention, making it more likely that students and parents would file complaints.

Astonishingly, Baltimore reported no incidents - because school officials have yet to fully implement the law. That's unacceptable for any school system, but particularly for one that worries about gang conflicts and other forms of intimidation. Baltimore and other jurisdictions should not be afraid to report bullying incidents. The more this kind of behavior is exposed and dealt with, the better.

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