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Baltimore County

Cyberbullying topic at Baltimore County public schools town hall meeting

Frequent use of social media among school-age children is causing new challenges for teachers, administrators and school counselors with cyberbullying.

There were 603 bullying, harassment or intimidation incidents reported by Baltimore County Public Schools to the state in the 2012-2013 Bullying and Harassment report, the most recent report available.

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That is an average of approximately three incidents a day, and an increase from 464 reported incidents the previous year, the report shows.

In the 2012-2013 school year, cyberbullying accounted for 7.5 percent of all bullying incidents reported in the state, according to a 2014 Maryland State Department of Education report.

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Last year, cyberbullying accounted for 13 percent of bullying incidents reported in the county school system, according to April Lewis, manager of the school system's school safety office.

Lewis was a member of a panel of educators, administrators and others addressing the topic during a March 12 town hall meeting held by Baltimore County Public Schools at Cockeysville Middle School.

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have opened a new avenue for bullying, the panelists said.

Members of the panel included: Michael Ford, of the Maryland State Department of Education; Abby Scherr, a parent and volunteer for National Alliance for Mental Illness; Abby Grabner, principal of Essex Elementary School; Murray Parker, principal of Western School of Technology and Environmental Science; Timothy Hayden, school counseling; Det.Ciepiela, Baltimore County Police Department; Deeksha Walia, a student at Kenwood High School and Lewis.

Parker said his magnet high school's biggest issue when it comes to bullying is social media, which has changed the way students communicate.

Parker said he has seen a dramatic shift in bullying because of it.

"Kids can be really mean... it's changing the way kids are interacting," he said.

Cyberbullying is defined by the county school system as: "the use of electronic communication to harm or harass others in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner."

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The form of bullying is causing challenges for school administrators and educators, they said.

Deeksha Walia, 17, a member of the panel, said cyberbullying usually begins at home on a computer, then ends up disrupting learning at school.

"It starts at home and cyberbullying is what is the biggest problem nowadays because lots of time, a parent can never tell who the person is — it's completely anonymous," said Walia, a junior at Kenwood High School.

Lisa Greenberg, a school counselor at Woodholme Elementary School, said she recently dealt with two girls in fifth grade who were bullied through Oovoo, a free video chat app, by other students.

"In the last four to five years, I have seen such a rapid change with our little ones," she said.

Greenberg, who has been a counselor for 17 years, said that while many young students report bullying to teachers, counselors or school administrators at the school, once they get into fourth and fifth grade, they stop reporting it.

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Det. Paul Ciepiela, part of the Youth Initiatives Team in the county's police department, said cyberbullying is an underreported issue because it is difficult to track.

Cellphone usage among students exacerbates the problem, he said.

At a recent presentation to fourth and fifth graders at Powhattan Elementary School, almost all students had a cellphone, Ciepiela said.

Ciepiela said students told him they don't tell their parents when they are bullied by others, because they don't want their cellphone privileges revoked.

Some in the room last week suggested a cellphone ban. But such a policy is difficult to implement when just about every student has one, the panelists said.

While cellphones can be distracting during school time, Ciepiela said parents also want their kids to have them for safety reasons. He cited school shootings, such as the 2012 incident at Perry Hall High School in which a 15-year-old student opened fire on the cafeteria, as one example that parents feel more comfortable if their children have access to a phone in an emergency situation.

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Walia said students at her school have created their own cellphone policy.

Students weren't able to use their phones unless they were in the cafeteria or a hallway, something they wanted to change, she said.

"Students had a problem with that, because during class time, if we're doing school work, students like to listen to music — they find it soothing or it helps them get work done," Walia said.

The school's new policy, suggested by students, is to have a sign in the front of the room to indicate when students can listen to their headphones, she said.

"I feel like there are positives and negatives, but banning them is not an option," Walia said, adding that some students use digital devices for learning.

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The school system is rolling out its Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T) initiative in order to equip students for 21st century learning. Part of that initiative is to provide all students with laptop computers by 2018.

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The pilot program began this year, and will be expanded next year. First- and third-graders at ten chosen schools, called Lighthouse schools, received the devices this year. Next year, kindergarten, fourth- and fifth-graders at Lighthouse schools will receive the devices.

Michael Ford, a school safety specialist for Maryland State Department of Education said the state has seen an overall decrease in the number of bullying cases reported by schools, but that school systems across the state need to improve their approach to cyberbullying.

The Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005 requires county school systems to report the information to the state by the Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005. Victims or their parents in Baltimore County can fill out a form, which is available on the school system's website, http://www.bcps.org/apps/bhi.

Baltimore County reported more incidents than any other state jurisdiction. However, that may be attributed to a heightened awareness of bullying among staff, students and parents, the report says.

"We're heading in the right direction but we have to gear up our game on the cyberbullying," Ford said.

Last week's event was the culmination of the school system's Bullying Prevention Week. It had been initially planned for March 2, but was rescheduled due to wintry weather.


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