Campaign at middle school teaches bullying is not cool

Ellicott Mills builds on countywide effort to discourage behavior

May 17, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

When she heard one girl tell another that she could not sit down at a lunch table, Jessica Downing, 12, a seventh-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School, immediately stepped in and voiced an objection.

"I told her it's just a spot; it doesn't matter," Jessica recalls saying, echoing sentiments she learned in the school's "Words Can Heal" campaign, which discourages put-downs and verbal harassment. "She kind of got mad at me. The other girl said, `Thanks.' It felt good after she said, `Thanks.'"

School systems, including Howard County's, are using such tactics as they combat bullying and intimidating behavior, which have become a common thread in school-related violence across the country.

Howard's newly toughened student code of conduct combines bullying, harassment and intimidation into a single category - and makes them grounds for expulsion. It also requires automatic parental involvement for students who violate the code, rather than simply talk with a staff member or administrator.

Schools such as Ellicott Mills have gone a step further and come up with their own ways to thwart bullying.

From the first day pupils come to Ellicott Mills, they are part of the "Words Can Heal" campaign. Pupils sign a pledge each year not to use put-downs or make hurtful statements. Sixth-graders are required to attend an hourlong workshop during which they learn to use positive statements.

"It's a pretty creative way to introduce the [campaign]," said Christina Wu, 14, an eighth-grader at Ellicott Mills. "It's a good reminder."

Debra O'Byrne, vice principal, said the campaign, which began during the 2003-2004 school year, is necessary because of the harm bullying can do to pupils.

"It can impede their growth and achievement," she said. "That impacts everything."

This school year, the Howard County public school system has reported 72 bullying incidents to the state, which requires that school systems collect and report statistics on bullying.

Hostile environment

The system's definition of bullying refers to conduct - including verbal conduct - that creates a hostile educational environment and interferes with a student's physical and psychological well-being.

Bullying can range from physical contact to behavior such as shutting out certain classmates from activities, according to experts. And it can be initiated by both genders, experts and students say.

Kevin Hartka, 12, a sixth-grader at Ellicott Mills, said most of the male bullying is physical.

"You get slammed into lockers," Hartka said. "Sometimes they are bad-mouthing each other."

Tiffany Sasaki, 11, a sixth-grader, said girls will do a lot of trash-talking.

"They say bad stuff behind your back," she said. "They talk about the way you look. Based on the way you react, they call you a cry-baby."

Like a scene inspired by the teenage hit movie Mean Girls, the sixth-grade restroom serves as a message board for girls to write mean messages about each other, Tiffany said.

"They write in Sharpie markers," she explained. "There's a lot of writing on the wall."

Using the Internet

Betsey Castellano, a guidance counselor at Ellicott Mills, said one of the biggest - and newest - concerns is bullying over the Internet through instant messaging and on MySpace.com, a popular social networking Web site.

"They are very quick to type something they wouldn't say," she explained. "We can't really address this other than contact [their] home."

Students and staff members acknowledge that the "Words Can Heal" campaign has not put an end to mean behavior, but they say that without the campaign things would be worst. In 2004, one year after the campaign started, there was a 19 percent decline in pupils disobeying school rules, O'Byrne said. Harassment incidents also dropped from 14 in 2004-2005 to three this school year.

Students say they have witnessed the benefits of the campaign.

Jessica Downing said classmates remind each other of put-downs and discourage negative behavior.

"They'll make you feel bad about saying it," she said.

Castellano, who has worked at Ellicott Mills for 26 years, said the campaign's popularity has increased since it was implemented.

"I love it when I see them saying, `That's a put-down,'" she said. "When you build a community environment, you feel safe and you can learn."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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