To quell bullying, Howard County schools seek social media advice

With hopes of learning more about social media and better combating cyber-bullying, Howard County school administrators have turned to the County Council's new digital communications manager.

Howard County schools have been grappling with how to curb digital bullying in the wake of the Easter Sunday suicide of Grace McComas, a Glenelg High School student whose parents say she had been harassed online.

Schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the challenge is that schools want to curb cyber-bullying but don't want administrators to become "social media police."

Samantha O'Neil, the digital communications manager — a $75,000 position created last year by the county to boost its social media presence — is putting together a presentation requested by the schools to provide teachers and administrators with a better understanding of social media and the avenues of online expression that students use on a daily basis.

"Cyber-bullying is a complex, tricky issue to tackle," O'Neil said. "We want to make our teachers and parents more aware of what's going on online and staying on top of trends."

While she hopes the training will help adults better connect to students, O'Neil said, another important aspect will be policy decisions based on input from focus groups and feedback. She said the presentations incorporate research and case studies on the subject, and while she's not a cyber-bullying expert, she wants teachers and parents to know what's out there.

"Awareness is the bottom line," O'Neil said. "It's not just a Facebook thing anymore. People are expressing themselves on Tumblr, and Twitter — especially among young people — is on the rise."

Caplan said administrators treat cyber-bullying like other serious infractions — students' bringing alcohol or drugs to school, for instance.

"We could search backpacks and lockers all day. We could probably find evidence, but that's not our role," Caplan said. "If we have reason to suspect, we can have police bring in drug dogs and all that. And we do at least once a year. But it's not something we spend our days trying to uncover. … They're societal issues that spill into our schools.

"I think we would have to look at roles and responsibilities. Our administrators could be online all day monitoring what kids post on other kids' Facebooks. I don't feel like that's the responsibilities of the schools."

Caplan said that if something constituting bullying is brought to the attention of a teacher or administrator, the issue is dealt with appropriately. Asked whether that's a reactive approach on the schools' part, she questioned the role of school employees.

"If … our role [is] to be that of police, that would be a real change from what we've been doing," Caplan said. "I wouldn't consider it reactive at all. We're aware, we have policies in place for it, but we don't go out seeking violations. It's not the role of the school to be the social media police.

"We have to make sure this doesn't become a full-time job for administrators in the schools. Families need to take responsibility for it. It can't be handed to the schools as their responsibility to be monitored."

O'Neil agreed that while parents' and educators' involvement in students' lives is crucial, trying to police the various social networking platforms they're using is near-impossible.

"It's not about monitoring them every day," she said. "It's more about being engaged in their lives."

Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat representing District 2, said County Executive Ken Ulman had previously called for a meeting to discuss social media issues, both in schools and county government, and said he agrees the topic warrants further discussion.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a District 1 Democrat, suggested that, if needed, the county government's high school summer interns could also be used as a focus group to augment the conversations.

"We need to work together to come up with a comprehensive approach," Ball said. "That could be a meeting, a workshop, a forum — it could look many different ways."

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