Through a series of family nights at local libraries, Howard County students are learning the difference between being a bystander and an "upstander" when it comes to bullying, and learning the power of one.
One Howard County, a digital safety initiative started by Board of Education member Brian Meshkin and his wife, Catherine, in partnership with Yahoo!, the National School Climate Center and other organizations, began in August. The group's first family night on Oct. 15 drew about 30 people to the Glenwood Branch Library, where participants learned that combating bullying means getting involved.
"It's about one student, one family, one neighborhood," Meshkin said. "That's all it takes to make a difference in Howard County."
Local leaders can try "top-down" approaches to combating bullying, Meshkin said, but at the end of the day, bullying concerns are community issues, and parents and students can become upstanders, rather than bystanders, when it comes to facing bullies.
"This is all about standing up for what you believe in, standing up for your principles and standing up for people who can't stand up for themselves," he said.
Representatives from the Howard County Association of Student Councils were also on hand, as were drama students from Atholton High School, who acted out a skit in which a person was being bullied, and while one student stood and watched, another stood up for the bullied student.
"The more you stand up for yourself, the more power you take away from the bully," said Spencer Franco, 17, a senior at Atholton who played the bully in the skit. When a person stood up to him on behalf of the bullied, Franco said he felt "incredibly awkward and stupid when all that power was gone."
Bobby Grady, 16, an Atholton junior, played the part of the upstander, telling Franco to stop picking on another student.
"Everyone's been bullied," he said. "And when you see someone being bullied, the last thing you want is to take their place, but (as the bullied) you want someone to come stick up for you."
Digital safety was also a focus at the event, the first of four family nights to be held across the county.
"We have technology evolving at such a fast rate, a lot of parents are clueless or in denial that cyber-bullying in happening," Meshkin said.
Parents and students were given a pledge to take home, stating that the student would agree to not bullying anyone online, and protect themselves using privacy settings on social media sites and only share their passwords with their parents. Parents, in turn, agree to set media limits for their children and monitor their online activity.
Learning about helping her children and community stay safe when it comes to media was what brought Maria Martin, whose youngest daughter is a senior at Glenelg High School, to the event.
"Bullying is especially sensitive in our community, and these wonderful programs bring people together," Martin said.
Hosting the first family night in Glenwood was purposeful, Meshkin said. Last spring, Glenelg student Grace McComas committed suicide after months of cyber-bullying, and as a father and community member, Meshkin said "let's start here."
Through the skits and role-playing, Beth Winter, of Lisbon, said she and her daughters — ages 4, 6 and 8 — were able to have conversations about bullying in a different environment.
"We call it 'ugly' behavior," she said. "That's easier for them to understand."
Samantha Winter, 6, understood just fine, she said.
"You can stand up to bullies, and say, 'don't do that,' " she said.
Meshkin said other family nights are tentatively scheduled for January, March and May at libraries in Columbia, Ellicott City and eastern Howard County.