Howard County PTA holds anti-bullying forum

Howard County PTA holds anti-bullying forum
Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University speaks on the issue at Wilde Lake High School. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

More than 100 parents and students gathered at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia on Thursday night to learn about how to prevent of cyberbullying and hear details of the Howard County public schools' anti-bullying policy.

Thursday's forum was in the works before the Easter Day suicide of a Glenelg High School sophomore who had been bullied online. But experts say the conversation is especially timely given the threat of copy-cat suicides.

"Cyberbullying doesn't directly lead to suicide," said Sameer Hinduja, the forum's keynote speaker and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "Sometimes it is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."

The parents of Glenelg sophomore Grace McComas said the 15-year-old took her life after she had been bullied online, though they have not revealed much publicly about the alleged harassment or the details surrounding the teen's suicide.

While suicide is rare for teens who have been cyberbullied, Hinduja said, many report being the victim of mean-spirited attacks on Twitter, Facebook or other social media outlets, such as Tumblr.

Parents should model appropriate online behavior, monitor their child's use of electronic devices and keep lines of communication open, Hinduja said. Hinduja provided samples of "use contracts" for the Internet and cellphones that parents and their children can sign as a way to build trust.

"It was very practical," said Mi-Kyong Kwon, a parent of two young children. "I will start to use some of the things he recommended" early on in their school careers, she said.

Many websites are instituting safeguards to prevent cyberbullying and stop teens from hurting themselves. Google has made prevention services its top results when the term "suicide" is searched. Facebook has a "Safety Center" on its site where teachers, teens, parents and authorities can go for information about cyberbullying.

"We maintain a robust reporting infrastructure that leverages the 845 million people who use our site to keep an eye out for offensive or potentially dangerous content," said Johanna Peace, a Facebook representative.

"This reporting infrastructure includes report links on pages across the Facebook site, systems to prioritize the most serious reports, and a trained team of reviewers who respond to reports and escalate them to law enforcement as needed," Peace said. "This team treats reports of harassing and bullying content as a priority."

Many children and teens have been both victim and bully, experts say.

One survey, conducted by the Internet safety nonprofit WiredSafety, found that as many as 85 percent to 95 percent of teens have been cyberbullied at least once. Hinduja says his research shows about 20 percent of children and teens are victims and 20 percent are bullies. The number varies based on how the question is asked and how cyberbullying is defined in a survey, he said.

Last year in Maryland public schools, nearly 4,700 cases of bullying, harassment and intimidation were reported. That included 409 cases in Anne Arundel County, 541 in Baltimore City, 510 in Baltimore County, 314 in Carroll, 54 in Harford, and 300 in Howard.

Levels of bullying, though, are much higher than the number of reported incidents, experts say.

About one-third of Howard County students are being bullied, Rosanne C. Wilson, a behavior specialist for the county's schools, told the audience Thursday. That reflects the national trend, she said.

Many students in Howard schools, like schools across the country, are being bullied because of what others perceive to be their sexual orientation, she said. Other major causes are gender and disability, she added.

"I didn't think that there were that many bullying cases," said Madeleine White, 11, who attends Patuxent Valley Middle School. Her mother, Helena White, who joined her at the forum, said parents need to get involved with bullying prevention when children are younger.

State law sets minimum standards for anti-bullying policies that include penalties for cyberbullying that takes place at school, on the bus or at school-based events. Educators also have the ability to intervene in cases of cyberbullying that affect a student's physical or mental well-being or ability to learn.

Wilson encouraged parents to insist that administrators investigate incidents of cyberbullying, even if it happens outside school hours or off school grounds.

Hinduja said the best solution is fostering a cultural change among youth rather than depending on schools or parents to punish the bullies.

Hinduja, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, is recognized nationally for his expertise in the constantly changing area. He is co-author of the recently released book, "School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time."