Faith Billings broke into tears Tuesday evening as the former Aberdeen High School student described how dealing with bullying during her middle and high school years, led her to drop out of high school and quit the sport she loved, softball.
"Walking across that [graduation] stage was the biggest dream of my life," Faith, 16, said during a community meeting on bullying held at Aberdeen City Hall and hosted by Mayor Michael Bennett.
Seventeen people, including parents, youths and community leaders, attended the meeting at City Hall, the second meeting held in Aberdeen in less than a week to address reports of bullying at Aberdeen High School. The first meeting was held Dec. 11 at the Aberdeen Senior Center.
Bennett began speaking about bullying at AHS earlier this month via social media when he compared reports of bullying at Dundalk High School in Baltimore County to those he had heard coming from Aberdeen.
A number of the parents present Tuesday criticized Aberdeen High School Principal Michael O'Brien on his handling of bullying and fighting at the school.
O'Brien wasn't available for comment Wednesday. Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, said she could not comment specifically on how AHS administrators handle reports of bullying, citing student and personnel privacy issues.
Kranefeld, however, stressed all principals must follow school system guidelines for reporting and investigating those reports.
"Unfortunately our kids can't undo that," Bennett said of the intimidation issue. "That's going to take enough adults getting the hair on the backs of their necks up and saying, 'That's enough.' "
"If the community loses confidence in a principal, then what are our options?" asked Nancy Merritt, director of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce.
She attended the meeting with Steve Johnson, past president of the chamber board and a current board member. Johnson is also running for state delegate.
Stacie Umbarger, the school liaison officer for Aberdeen Proving Ground, also attended and expressed concerns that bullying is affecting military families at the installation as well.
The Aberdeen mayor vowed to continue holding community meetings, and to get state and local government officials, as well as school board members, involved.
School board member Arthur Kaff, who has ties to the Aberdeen civilian and military communities, attended the Dec. 11 meeting and said at the time he is concerned "about bullying as it is related to policy issues in Harford County." No board members were seen at Tuesday's meeting.
The parents of an AHS senior, Amy and Tim Lindecamp, are suing Harford County Public Schools after they said their special-needs son endured years of bullying and harassment.
Faith, who dropped out of Aberdeen, said she was bullied repeatedly because of weight issues she had when she was younger.
She said she tried home schooling, but it was too difficult for her mother to take on the dual role of parent and teacher; she returned to Aberdeen, but ended up dropping out again during the 2012-2013 school year, her sophomore year, and eventually getting her GED. Faith also blamed O'Brien and the school administration for her struggles.
Kranefeld said she could not comment on the situation involving Faith.
"I cannot comment specifically on any case involving student files," she said. "By law I'm not allowed to share information that would be part of their record."
The Lindecamps also attended Tuesday's meeting. Amy Lindecamp said she had attended every community meeting held on bullying that she could, including those hosted by the school system. Tim Lindecamp is the athletic director at Aberdeen High.
Amy Lindecamp encouraged parents to continue to press the issue if their children are being bullied, and to fill out the report forms provided by Harford County Public Schools. They are available at individual schools and on the school system website, http://www.hcps.org.
Data on bullying must be reported to the Maryland State Department of Education; Harford County Public Schools reported 82 cases of bullying or intimidation in the 2011-12 school year.
She acknowledged that the task can seem "begrudging," but it serves as a record of the parents' complaint.
"Keep doing it, because you know you turned in that form," she said.
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Kranefeld, the HCPS spokesperson, said Wednesday that officials in the school system central office "would like parents to work with their school administration first and foremost."
Parents who are not satisfied with the response they receive from their child's school can appeal to higher authorities, including the central office, the school superintendent, the county Board of Education, and then to the state Board of Education, Kranefeld explained.
"Depending on the nature of the situation, it would come to the central office for review," she said.
Kranefeld said procedures for handling student and parent grievances, and filing appeals, are outlined in the Parent-Student Handbook provided to families at the beginning of each school year.
"A principal's decision may be appealed," according to the handbook. "Only in those cases wherein the rights of students, as defined in this document, are allegedly violated may an appeal be made beyond the school to the Superintendent of Schools of Harford County.
A principal, or his or her "designee," must determine if the reported act is a violation of policy and "promptly" inform the parents of the victim and offender that the incident has occurred.
The report of bullying or harassment will not be included in a student's permanent record, and any discipline meted out cannot be shared with anyone other than the parents or guardians of the student, according to state law.