The Howard County Public School System is hosting four student forums this month focusing on bullying prevention efforts in schools.
The first forum was held at Elkridge Landing Middle School March 7. The remaining forums will be held March 14 at Reservoir High School, March 18 at Howard High School and March 20 at Folly Quarter Middle School.
These are the first student-only, anti-bullying forums organized by the county, said Rosanne Wilson, a positive behavior specialist for the HCPSS Office of Student Services.
County education officials decided to hold the forums to get feedback from students about the bullying behavior they encounter in school and ways to prevent it, Wilson said.
Middle and high school students can sign up online to participate in the forums, which are being held at four schools from different areas of the county.
"Hopefully we'll get a good cross section of students from all walks of life," Wilson said.
During the forums, students will break into groups and discuss what their peers and school staff are doing to stop or prevent bullying. While some adults will be present, the discussions will be facilitated by student leaders, Wilson said.
The county's anti-bullying task force will use feedback from the forums to make recommendations for prevention efforts in county schools.
The task force, established in 2006, reconvened during the 2010-2011 school year to address more recent trends such as cyberbullying.
Wilson said forum participants will be able to discuss specific types of bullying.
"When we talk about bullying it includes intimidation and harassment as well," she said.
Hammond High School senior Adam Albaari, who spoke on an expert panel about bullying during the Howard County Library System's 2011 Choose Civility Symposium, said the modern definition of bullying extends beyond one student taking another's lunch money.
"What we see is kids that are being pushed out of certain groups and being made fun of," Albaari said. "The easiest way to bully someone is to alienate them."
Albaari said many bullying victims are afraid to seek help from adults because they feel they are coming out on the losing end of an altercation. Peer mediation in schools is the best way to address this problem, he said.
"Kids talk to other kids all the time," Albaari said. "If you have a peer mediator that you feel you can talk to, and the peer mediator can tell an administrator, I really don't see how that couldn't be beneficial."
The forums will be an opportunity for students to discuss bullying with their peers in an open environment and expand upon the dialogue surrounding it, Albaari said.
"The more we talk about something, the more people are open to talking about it," he said.
Howard County's anti-bullying initiatives received increased attention after the suicide of teenager Grace McComas in April 2012 was linked to cyberbullying.
McComas' death led county officials to hold an anti-bullying forum the following month, which was hosted by Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice returned to Howard County in July to host a bullying prevention rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
Ginger Dudek, the mother of a Reservoir High School student and a speaker at the county's forum last May, said she feels the county could provide more support to bullying victims.
The process of filling out a form to report bullying is ineffective, and kids are reluctant to go through with it, she said.
Dudek said she hopes the student input at this month's forums will lead to positive changes in county policy.
"If they can come up with some good ideas I think it will be worthwhile," she said.
Wilson said County Executive Ken Ulman and other officials are collaborating with mental health authorities and police to maintain overall safety in the community, and this includes working to prevent bullying behavior.
"We're trying to keep our schools as safe and nurturing and positive as possible," Wilson said. "Our main goal is to try and eliminate bullying in Howard County."
Dan Singer is a journalism student at University of Maryland.