Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley made an early-morning visit Monday to Pikesville Middle School, where she praised school leaders and students for serving as a model for schools struggling to address bullying.
O'Malley visited the middle school to launch Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week in the state.
"Bullies are mean, they're intimidating and they need to be confronted," O'Malley said.
During a discussion with a group of Pikesville students, O'Malley used recent high-profile incidents to illustrate the seriousness of the issue, including the suicide of a Massachusetts teen who was bullied.
O'Malley encouraged students to speak out against bullies, even if they're just witnesses.
"It's something that can change your life," O'Malley told students.
The bullying awareness week was designated by O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who sent a joint message to all district superintendents asking that schools participate in events this week to promote awareness and prevention.
O'Malley called Pikesville Middle School a "model school" for bullying prevention programs. Four students presented the school's model, called "The Pikesville Way," to the first lady. The program, which has been in existence for several years, stresses that bullying can be prevented if students are respectful, responsible, cooperative and accountable.
Every morning, the students have a mini-lesson on the Pikesville Way, said Principal Mia Talarigo. But students and staff members alike said that the lessons need to be taught at home as well as school.
"The process is two-fold," said David Hamburger, an eighth-grader at Pikesville Middle who presented the accountability part of the model. "A home support system is just as important as school support systems."
Hamburger, 14, said that the recent incidents of students harming or threatening to harm themselves because of bullies show that "all systems have failed."
The bullying awareness week was inspired by both the Massachusetts suicide case and a case of bullying in Baltimore City schools.
Last month, nine Massachusetts students were arraigned in the death of their classmate, Phoebe Prince, a freshman who hanged herself in January after she was relentlessly bullied at her high school.
Just weeks after the arraignments, the mother of a Baltimore City third-grader said that her 8-year-old daughter threatened to kill herself and attempted to jump out of a window to escape bullies at Gilmor Elementary School. City school officials said the girl's teacher reported that the student only said she wanted to commit suicide.
The girl has cerebral palsy and was attacked by a group of three students, who school officials said were suspended from Gilmor after the incident. She then switched schools.
O'Malley said she was shocked to hear of the incident and applauded Baltimore City school officials for removing the girl from the school. However, she said the case went beyond bullying.
"It's one thing to tease a child and call a child certain names, but it's another thing to be physically assaulting another kid in school — it's just not tolerable," she said.
Since 2005, several legislative and policy moves have been aimed at curbing bullying and encouraging more reporting of incidents in Maryland schools. Laws are in place that require school systems to establish bullying policies and provide a designated form to report bullying. The state's education department policy also enforces the reporting of incidents.
Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools have experienced an uptick in bullying incidents this school year, which school officials have attributed to more reporting by students, faculty and parents.
City officials said they received 105 complaints of bullying so far this school year, up from 79 last year. Baltimore County schools have noted 217 reports of bullying so far this school year, up from about 141 the previous year.
The number of bullying incidents reported at Pikesville Middle was not immediately available, according to Baltimore County school officials.
O'Malley said she would revisit the issue of bullying in the fall when school is back in session. A national bullying prevention week is observed in October.