Bullying, suicide attempt reported at elementary school

Three students have been suspended for bullying at Gilmor Elementary after the mother of a third-grade student said her daughter attempted to kill herself because she was repeatedly verbally and physically attacked.

Administrators denied claims of rampant bullying at the West Baltimore school, but said they take such allegations seriously.

Still, some teachers and union officials say there is a culture of student violence at Gilmor that remains unaddressed.

The allegations are surfacing amid a national discussion on the responsibility of teachers, students and parents to address harassment in the classroom. This month, six Massachusetts high school students were arraigned in the death of their classmate, who committed suicide after being bullied.

On Tuesday, Baltimore school system officials denied any suicide attempt took place at Gilmor.

But parent Geneva Biggus says that on April 20, her daughter, Shaniya Boyd, 8, who has cerebral palsy, tried to jump out of a window at the school. She said Shaniya told her "she just wanted to get away" after she was teased, knocked off of the crutches she uses to walk, and kicked repeatedly in the forehead by a boy.

The school system has received 105 bullying complaints in the district this year, up from 79 at the same time last year. Jonathan Brice, executive director of student support for city schools, attributed the uptick to staff training sessions and increased awareness.

Brice said the teacher at Gilmor gave a different account of what happened with Shaniya. He said she was not at a window, but was taken to the nurse's office after making a comment that she wanted to commit suicide.

But he did acknowledge that one of the three students suspended since the incident allegedly attacked Shaniya. School officials would not disclose the circumstances for the other suspensions.

Brice also said that he was not aware of a pattern of violent behavior or bullies at the school. Central office officials are usually alerted to behavior taking place at schools that would warrant a suspension of more than five days or multiple suspensions, he said.

"At no time was the central office flagged that a certain student at Gilmor was experiencing that kind of behavior," he said.

Brice said that the school system is working with Gilmor's principal, Ledonnis Hernandez, to determine whether the student who allegedly attacked Shaniya is a candidate for alternative schools or other support programs.

At least one Gilmor teacher said she walked away from the school in part because the bullying was rampant.

Tammy Matthews, who taught fifth grade at the school for two years, said she left Feb. 19 after the students' behavior made the school unbearable.

"One day I just walked out," said Matthews, who now teaches in North Carolina. "I just couldn't sit and watch it anymore; I had to get out of there."

Matthews said she spoke up at meetings with the school's leaders about attacks on both students and teachers. In a letter she wrote to schools CEO Andres Alonso that was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, she said her teaching position was downgraded as retaliation for reporting bullying. School officials would not discuss Matthews' concerns, saying it was a personnel matter. But Edie House-Foster, city schools spokeswoman, said the letter "was not ignored."

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, met with teachers at Gilmor on Tuesday to address complaints of student abuse against teachers at the school.

English said Tuesday morning that she was intervening because she was informed that "no one's doing anything about it."

She did not return phone calls seeking comment after the meeting Tuesday.

Matthews said the bullying significantly affected the students' performance, because teachers were afraid to take extra measures, such as teaching in small groups.

"I'm not surprised one kid wants to jump out the window; another actually might," she said.

Baltimore officials are wise to take the recent national bullying cases seriously, said Dr. Anne Townsend, executive director of the Maryland-based Mariposa Child Success Programs, which hosts several anti-bullying trainings and resources for schools and parents.

The death of Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman who hanged herself in a stairwell of her family's home in South Hadley, Mass., "really shook me," Townsend said.

Authorities say Prince was relentlessly bullied in the months before she took her life. "One of the myths that we try to dispel is that kids are resilient," Townsend said.

She said that while the state has several safeguards in place to try to guide school systems in combating bullying, systemic challenges don't catch up to the real issues. Townsend said schools often lack tools in identifying and reporting bullying.

"I don't believe they're just ignoring the problem; they truly don't know what to do with it," Townsend said.

In July 2005, the state implemented the Safe Schools Reporting Act, a law that required a form be used for complaints of intimidation and bullying. In 2008, the Maryland State Board of Education adopted a model policy prohibiting bullying, harassment or intimidation in schools. It also requires proper reporting of bullying and prohibits retaliation.

In the latest policy report, of the 118,834 suspensions/expulsions in Maryland's 24 public school systems during the 2007-2008 school year, 1,257 were for bullying.

This is enough for Maryland schools to take notice, Townsend said.

"We're seeing it more and more, and it's happening earlier and earlier," she said.

Tuesday, a week after she reportedly tried to commit suicide, Shaniya started her first day at a new school, Langston Hughes Elementary. Her mother removed her from Gilmor last week.

"This morning was so overwhelming that it brought tears to my eyes," said Biggus. "I just didn't know how much of a burden would be lifted off my heart."

Through tears, Biggus described how her daughter got up early for school Tuesday.

"Usually, I have to go and stand over her bed to get her up," Biggus said of Shaniya's apparent change in attitude toward school.

"She was sitting downstairs waiting for me to get dressed. I didn't know what a burden it was for her — I just couldn't believe it," she said.

Statistics on bullying
Baltimore City: 105 bullying complaints this year, up from 79 a year ago
Maryland: 1,257 suspensions/expulsions for bullying during the 2007-2008 school year
Nation: 32.2 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied in school in 2007