According to the Maryland State Department of Education, there were 3,818 incidents of bullying in Maryland schools during the 2009-2010 school year, and reports of bullying have been increasing over the past three years. The harmful results of this increased bullying are more than just bruised arms and hurt feelings.
Maryland law requires school staff to report bullying. As the state Department of Education noted in its model policy to address bullying: "Sometimes regarded as a 'rite of passage,' bullying and harassment can no longer be regarded as such. During the past two decades, the often devastating effects of bullying and harassment have evidenced themselves on the well-being of students and the climate of schools."
Last week, in a Baltimore City courtroom, a city public school principal attempted to defend his inaction to protect students by testifying that bullying is "a buzz word" of the moment. Edmund and Shawna Sullivan said that their then-9-year-old son, who has disabilities, was repeatedly beaten at his elementary school by other students, who then targeted their daughter when she defended her brother.
Hazelwood Elementary School Principal Sidney Twiggs said that the students' behavior would not have been called "bullying" until recently. "The word bullying didn't come about until another child was killed in another municipality. This recently has become a buzz word. Before, when a child had a problem, it was called 'bothering' or 'picked on.'"
As attorneys representing students with disabilities throughout Maryland, we hear from our clients about conduct that goes well beyond "bothering." Parents frequently come to our law firm seeking help to stop bullying that is ignored and minimized by school staff. In our experience, parents are often not even told about the existence of a "Bullying Report Form" when they complain to school officials about their children being bullied. Despite mandatory school staff reporting, parents find that no report has been filed. In one of our cases, an eighth-grade boy told his parents that he was terrified to return to school, after being hit in the face and bitten by another student. He told them that he felt like he was always being beaten up. He also told his teachers that he was bullied, but they treated the issue as a simple fight between two students.
Another family found out their son was running out of school and taking a shortcut home to avoid the bus. They discovered that, as he walked home from the bus stop, a mob of other students followed him, taunted him, and dared him to fight. Another student from the school showed up at the family's door one day, asking if the boy would come out and fight. The boy eventually began avoiding school altogether. When the family told school administrators about the problem, the school treated the matter as just "boys being boys."
In a court case, a New York judge reviewed recent research that revealed the effects bullying has on a student's education. Federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein wrote that bullying "impairs concentration and leads to poorer academic performance," and bullied students "have increased health problems, and struggle to adjust emotionally." Judge Weinstein noted that, if bullying were a disease, "a team from the Centers for Disease Control charged with investigating epidemics would have been called in to study it." Judge Weinstein also cited research indicating that students with disabilities are disproportionately more likely to be bullied. Another court, in Texas, allowed a case to go forward against a school system for its failure to respond to repeated bullying of a 9-year-old boy with disabilities who "was called "gay" because of his speech impediment ..." The boy hanged himself in the school nurse's office.
Bullying is not just a "buzz word." It is a real and present threat to students — to their safety, to their education, and to their ability to grow into independent adults. In 2005, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Safe Schools Act, placing an obligation on school systems to investigate and report incidents of bullying. Too often, and in too many schools, the requirements of that act are overlooked. Bullying is minimized, and the victims are turned into troublemakers or complainers by school systems. Despite the jury verdict in favor of the school system in the Sullivans' case, we hope that the bullying their children endured will be a wake-up call to action for school administrators around the state. Bullying has real and long-lasting consequences for students, and it must be stopped.
Ellen A. Callegary is a founding partner of a law firm focusing on special education, disability and family law issues. As an assistant Maryland attorney general, she advised state agencies on disability rights and was principal counsel for the Department of Juvenile Services. Her email is email@example.com.