A ray of hope, and a touch of grace.
That's the mantra that the family of Howard County teen Grace McComas hopes will prevail in confronting incidents of bullying. Addressing a group of parents and school leaders Saturday, they said the emerging epidemic played a part in Grace, a 15-year-old, ending her own life on Easter Sunday.
The McComas family joined forces with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice to send a powerful message in a forum called "A Ray of Hope: A Pro-kindness, Anti-bullying, Teen Suicide Prevention Outreach," at Howard High School.
"This situation has really gotten out of hand," Rice, the co-host of the event, told the audience of more than 100, adding that he was devastated to see that bullying incidents are now a factor in suicide. "That struck a nerve in my body, and everything I stand for."
A host of local and state leaders, including County Councilman Calvin Ball who co-hosted the forum, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, and Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley, gathered to hear and air concerns about bullying.
Saying that his own sister was bullied, Rice told members of the crowd that they had to tackle the issue together to give a voice to those suffering in silence. "Football aside, I want to be a voice in this," he said.
The McComas family said that Grace, who attended Glenelg High School, committed suicide after months of online torment via Twitter. On Saturday, the family released some of the tweets their daughter had received in the months leading up to her death.
According to tweets read aloud at the event, Grace was told repeatedly that she was hated and that her existence was God's sense of humor. She was encouraged to kill herself.
Mother Chris McComas told the crowd that Grace was kind, exuberantly happy, and tender-hearted. "Too tender-hearted, in fact, in a world that can be cruel," she said, as the girl's sisters sat weeping.
Fighting tears, father Dave McComas told the crowd that a tweet was like "an instant auditorium," and that the name cyber-bullying doesn't capture the impact of social media harassment. "It should be called water-boarding … it is constant torture. Grace was in constant torture."
By the end of the forum, tensions ran high as parents and students shared stories about enduring layers of bureaucracy in the Howard County school system to get help in bullying situations. O'Malley, who has created Maryland's Bullying Awareness Week, said that protocols requiring victims to fill out a state-issued reporting form aren't enough.
"It's the schools that need to do the snitching for the kids," O'Malley said. "We can't make the victim [do it]; they're already fragile. They're not brave, so we have to be brave for them. The forms are great, but they're just one avenue."
Pam Blackwell, director of student services for Howard County, said that "bullying is a symptom of a school climate not working," and that professional development programs about bullying are a high priority. She said most cyber-bullying takes place on devices at home, and the system would need parents' help to ensure that students are being monitored.
Incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation affected nearly 4,700 Maryland students last year, according to the most recent statistics published by the Maryland State Department of Education. Last year, there were 409 cases in Anne Arundel County, 541 in Baltimore City, 510 in Baltimore County, 314 in Carroll, 54 in Harford, and 300 in Howard.
Parents and students said that the forum was overdue in Howard County.
"It was an eye-opening opportunity for the school system," said Ginger Dudek, the parent of a Reservoir High School freshman who was bullied for years until he fought back for the first time this year. "They have forms and stuff, but there's no support."
Dudek's son, Chris, was glad that attendees, as well as experts and officials, heard students' voices.
"It seems like they don't care as much as they should," Chris said. "It will be good to see something change."