Geneva Biggus sometimes barely recognizes her chatty, confident fifth-grader, who just 18 months ago was so vulnerable and desperate that she threatened to jump from the second-floor window of her West Baltimore school to escape bullies.
On a recent day at their home, Biggus reflected on her decision to speak out about Shaniya Boyd's experience at Gilmor Elementary School.
"It was worth it, because — look at her," a teary-eyed Biggus said, nodding toward her daughter, who was smiling and poking fun at her mother for becoming emotional. "I'm sorry that my child had to be a victim, but now she has a voice, and other kids and parents have a voice, too."
The number of bullying incidents reported in city schools more than doubled last school year from the previous year — a surge that officials attribute, in part, to Shaniya's story, which thrust Baltimore into a national dialogue about how bullying, once considered a childhood rite of passage, can take a dangerous or deadly turn.
"Bullying is no longer a situation of 'kids will be kids;' it strikes at the heart of a safe and supportive school environment," said Jonathan Brice, who oversees student support and safety for the city school system. "It causes students to internalize very harmful thoughts and feelings about themselves, and that can come out in harmful ways, not just to themselves but the school community."
Last school year, the city received 541 formal reports of bullying, according to preliminary data provided by the school system. That number, which is unofficial because it has not been reported to the state, represents a more than 150 percent increase from the 231 received a year earlier. In the two school years before that, city school officials received 26 and 12 reports, respectively.
Brice said the city ramped up its existing bullying prevention efforts after Shaniya's experience.
"Any high-profile incident sheds additional light on a topic," Brice said. "What gets measured, gets done. … Before we might not have been paying attention enough to the issue."
The trend is mirrored statewide. Maryland and city school officials said there has been more awareness of anti-bullying efforts since the establishment of the state's Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005. The law requires school districts to report incidents of bullying and established a formal complaint form for victims of harassment and intimidation. Since then, new legislation has strengthened the law.
The Maryland State Department of Education's latest policy report in March of this year — an annual update mandated by the reporting act — noted about 3,800 reported bullying incidents in the last school year, an increase of more than 2,000 reports from each of the two previous years.
State officials said they're encouraged there is more reporting of bullying incidents, but they still don't think reports capture the pervasiveness of a problem that they say has been excused for too long.
"I think the increases are still a function of awareness, but I'm not sure that we've yet seen the actual number of bullying" incidents, said Ann Chafin, assistant state superintendent, who added that the state ramped up its training for educators in the past year.
"I'm encouraged when I see those numbers go up, because it means we've made progress on saying that it's not acceptable," Chafin said. "I don't think we'll ever wipe it out completely, but we can't try until people feel comfortable reporting it."
Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties also noted an increase in bullying reports last school year, according to data provided by the systems. Baltimore County noted about 200 more reports in the last school year, for a total of 510 for the year; and Anne Arundel County saw an increase of about 170 reports, for a total of 409.
The state report shows that the Howard County district's bullying complaint forms have more than doubled over the past three school years to last year, when it received 224 reports.
Baltimore school officials said the numbers show that city schools are becoming more vigilant.
"The encouraging piece is that we can respond to it, and the disturbing piece is that there are 500 incidents," Brice said. "We want a school system where there are no incidents. Until we get to that point, we recognize that we still have a lot of work left to do."
Locally, Shaniya's story spurred citywide bullying forums and the strengthening of city schools' policies on bullying and attempts to prevent it. The school system displays the bullying complaint form prominently on its website, and its code of conduct now outlines extensive protocols and consequences for bullies.
Shaniya, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was knocked off her crutches and kicked in the head repeatedly by some classmates during the incident last year. When she was blocked from escaping out the door, she headed for a window. She was 8 at the time. Three students were suspended in Shaniya's attack.
The now-10-year-old is a fifth-grader at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, her mother said, where she is thriving in an environment that has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and a strong support system.
She underwent several surgeries in the past year to straighten her legs and has walked without crutches for the past six months.
"She walks proud now," Biggus said. "When she goes to school, whether it's a good or bad day, she goes with a smile on her face, and she is safe. I have faith in schools again."
Marcie Goodman, Maryland's legislative liaison for Bullying Police USA and a longtime anti-bullying advocate, wrote the legislation signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2008 that required the state education department to establish a model bullying-prevention policy to guide local districts. She said that since then, the state has come a long way in addressing the issue.
"There's definitely more awareness because the school systems know they have to step in to help the bullied and the bullies," Goodman said. "Shaniya humanized it for so many people, and what happened to her was so horrifying that it made people who were in positions to effect change pay attention."
In the wake of the debate last year, the governor's wife, Katie O'Malley, established an inaugural Bullying Awareness Week in Maryland.
Last fall, after a series of high-profile cases across the nation, the U.S. Department of Education convened a task force and held an inaugural summit to address the issue.
The U.S. secretary of education issued memos to state and district leaders, including Baltimore, reminding them of bullying policies and how failing to enforce them could jeopardize their federal funding.
Goodman, who tours the state speaking to students, said that while public schools are making progress, there are still many students who can fall through the cracks. She is contacted by at least 30 families a month for guidance on how to help their bullied children, particularly those who attend private school.
Last legislative session, another one of Goodman's bills passed that will require all private schools that receive state funds to have a bullying prevention policy. But a number of private schools, which have opposed the measure, won't have to report bullying incidents.
"The more that we can get people to understand that what hurts kids hurts all of us, we can make a difference," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun