The quiet fourth-grade boy insisted that he didn't know how to play kickball, but teacher Christine Davis knew he had been bullied. And that, she suspected, was the real reason he kept to himself during recess.
His classmates at Baltimore County's Carney Elementary School thought he was weird, Davis recalls. Many of them knew that some students had once locked him in a bathroom stall.
So she befriended him, teaching him kickball and saying hello in the halls. Soon, some of the kids warmed up to him.
Armed with evidence that bullying escalates in middle school, and still mindful of the circumstances that led to the 1999 fatal shootings at Columbine High in Colorado, experts increasingly are urging educators to tailor anti-bullying messages to the youngest, most impressionable children.
In Maryland, educators have statistics for the first time on how much bullying is going on in state schools - and the numbers have them stepping up efforts to head off problems before they start. Just as experts can size up a group of third-graders and name the likely dropout, they can pick a budding bully out of that crowd, said Chuck Buckler, director of student services and alternative programs at the Maryland State Department of Education.
"We need to be thinking about this from Day 1," he said. "Starting at pre-kindergarten is not too early."
Davis is reluctant to take credit for the turnaround of the child she worked with but said she couldn't stand by and do nothing.
"There's this misconception that bullying is a part of growing up," said Davis, a second-grade teacher. "If you teach them here in elementary school that it's wrong, maybe we can stop it in middle schools."
In Maryland, those lessons come in many forms.
Elementary school teachers in Baltimore County use sing-along tapes to develop social and problem-solving skills, and counselors at Catonsville Elementary use puppet shows to teach first- and second-graders about bullying. Baltimore City school officials plan to publish an anti-bullying magazine geared to fifth- and sixth-graders that will urge them to call a hot line run by the system to report bullying.
The Bully Blockers Club at Howard County's Running Brook Elementary and the Character Crew at Sandymount Elementary in Carroll County spread their messages through posters and morning announcements. Children at Arnold Elementary School in Anne Arundel County can make anonymous reports to the "Bully Box," which is monitored by a guidance counselor.
Experts such as Kathryn Seifert, an Eastern Shore psychologist and author of How Children Become Violent, maintain that because behavioral problems generally start before a child turns 13, elementary school is a prime time to teach children how to avoid bullying.
It also is the best time to identify children who are at risk of becoming bullies or of being bullied and offer them mental health and social services, she said.
Seifert said children who might become bullies tend to have experienced or witnessed physical or emotional abuse, are less resilient and have trouble resolving problems.
"They have difficulty seeing that there's more than one way to solve their problems," she said. "Their first reaction is to fight. They're on a hair trigger that almost anything can set off."
Children who are prone to being bullied tend to have low self-esteem, are unable to defend themselves and easily become emotionally distraught, according to a Web site run by Coalition for Children, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado.
Bullying can include hitting, teasing and social exclusion. Each day, an estimated 160,000 students nationwide miss school because they are afraid of being bullied, according to the National Education Association.
"There was a point in time when it was thought that bullying was just boys being boys, and bullying was not taken very seriously," said Seifert, a former kindergarten teacher. "Columbine opened a lot of eyes." The April 20, 1999, attack in which two students killed 12 students and a teacher and then committed suicide is considered the worst incident of school violence in the United States, according to a 2002 joint study by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. The two boys were recalled as social outcasts, and witnesses said they had been victims of pervasive bullying at the school, according to news reports.
The federal report found that many school attackers said they had felt bullied, persecuted or injured before their rampages. While such school violence is considered rare, Columbine created a sense that a similar attack could happen at any school at any time, the report said.