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Harford panel talks about rise of bullying in schools, workplaces

With Bullying Prevention Month just days away, a small group, made up mostly of women, gathered at the Veronica "Roni" Chenowith Activity Center in Fallston Wednesday evening to discuss rise of bullying in schools and workplaces, as well as the role social media has played in the problem.

The event, which was hosted by the county's Commission on Women, featured a panel discussion of Harford-area experts who deal with bullying and who provided tactics and remedies people can explore to handle bullies.

Before the panel discussion began, one 13-year-old Bel Air area middle school girl, whose name has been withheld, shared her story of being viciously bullied on social media sites, such as ooVoo, Instagram, Vine, Twitter and the anonymous question-answer site Ask.fm, after sticking up for a fellow classmate.

"You shouldn't bully people and tell them to commit suicide or die because you don't always know what's going on with person," said the young teen. "You are still a person and people should care about each other."

All of the panelists agreed that new social media technology is shifting the traditional dynamic of bullying. Now, they say, bullying is not just occurring in the school yard, but continuing once a child gets home.

"The bullying that occurs on social media is a trend based on status stress," said panelist Bobby Audley, a public speaker and team building facilitator.

Harford Sheriff's Office Deputy First Class Lori Denbow, a panelist who works in the school policing unit in Harford County, said social media has enabled people to say things to another person that they wouldn't traditionally say in an in-person setting.

"It's so much easier to hide behind the screen," Denbow said. "Parents need to be in the room as their students interact online, check their passwords and the sites they go on."

Audley, however, said he does not believe all social media is bad.

"Studies show that social media can increase empathy as people learn about other cultures and increase their interactions online," he said.

Panelist Rod Burn, who has spent years working in human resources, said bullying does not just occur in grade school, but also in the workplace. Burn said workplace bullying is more complicated and often harder to remedy.

"In the adult world, a lot of people don't report bullying or aggressive behavior by a co-worker because they are afraid to lose their job," said Burn. "A lot of people are willing to put up with a lot to keep that security."

Another panelist, Amy Wagner, director at Family and Children Services of Harford County, said one sign that an adult is experiencing a hostile work environment might be that that person is missing a lot of days from work or isolates themselves from their co-workers.

One attendee, Rhonda Davis, 45, of Fallston, also mentioned her frustration with bystanders, who witness someone being bullied, but do not intervene. The mother of three said she sees this type of behavior exhibited by children, but also adults in leadership positions.

Davis said her 8-year-old son had been experiencing bullying from a youth football program coach and was ready to quit the team.

"What I don't understand is how the assistant coaches who witnessed the actions of this coach sat by and did nothing," said Davis. "One coach even told me — 'Oh, I thought you knew.'"

Davis said her husband spoke with the coach, who toned down his aggressive behavior, but she said she believes there needs to be a larger system of accountability in such situations.

"What I don't get is the lack of communication and empathy," said Davis. "It's like the coach couldn't see the frustration on the kids' face or when they are too scared to approach you."

Panelists said parents have to stay engaged with their children to watch out for signs they may be experiencing bullying. Wagner said there is a untold "no snitching" code among many school-age children.

"Kids endure the risk of being bullied at the risk of being shunned even more by their classmates if they tell," Wagner said.

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