Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano looked uncharacteristically somber as he stood at the podium Thursday morning in Atholton High School, ready to unveil the school system's latest anti-bullying efforts.
"I'm pretty much going to talk from my heart today," Martirano said as he opened the news conference. He went on to speak about the bullying and harassment he's seen and heard about throughout the community, as well as experienced himself.
Martirano said he has become extremely concerned and agitated by the "lack of civility" between people, especially in the age of social media.
"For us to say that [bullying] is nonexistent is, quite frankly, irresponsible on our part," Martirano said. "We need to recognize that many of our young people, many of our community members, adults, experience bullying on a daily basis."
In response to bullying that occurs in schools, Martirano declared that "we are galvanizing together to eradicate, not just stop, but to eradicate, bullying."
Martirano said that he has named James LeMon, executive director of community, parent and student outreach, as the point of contact for all issues associated with bullying.
"I'm not going to hide behind the red tape and bureaucracy," Martirano said. "I don't care whether it comes in on a form, phone call, a tweet or whatever it may come in on, as soon as we know we're engaging with a response."
As part of Thursday's event, held during National Bullying Prevention Month, Martirano unveiled a new public service announcement video about the dangers of bullying and the importance of speaking out against it.
The video features Martirano and Christine McComas, whose daughter Grace McComas committed suicide in 2012 after enduring months of cyberbullying. Grace was a sophomore at Glenelg High School at the time of her death.
Following her death, a bill named in her honor, "Grace's Law," was passed by the state Senate in 2013 to make it a misdemeanor to repeatedly and maliciously use a computer or smartphone to bully someone under the age of 18.
In the video, Martirano and McComas discuss the detrimental effects bullying can have on an individual, pointing out that bullied children are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, changes in sleeping and eating habits and loss of interest in activities they enjoy.
The public service announcement will be posted on the school system's website and shown before Merriweather Post Pavilion's summer movie night screenings beginning next year, according to schools spokesman Brian Bassett.
The county also hopes to add more anti-bullying information to health classes in eighth and ninth grades, an age group often plagued by bullying, Bassett said.
There were 368 reported instances of bullying in Howard County schools in 2015-16, according to state data. Nationally, however, 64 percent of students bullied did not report it, according to a 2010 study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, leaving the potential for the actual number of bullying incidents to be much higher.
McComas spoke at the event and urged community members, including adults and leaders, not to normalize name calling and other forms of bullying. She also encouraged people to stand up against acts of bullying when they witness it, imploring them to be "upstanders" instead of bystanders.
The event was emotional for many in attendance, including Board of Education Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt, who spoke about her own experience being bullied as a seventh-grader. Despite her experience being tormented by "trolls," she said it's important that bullies receive help as well to correct their behavior and understand the hurt they cause.
Officials turned the mic over to Atholton High School students, who spoke about their organization, the Bully-Free Forever Club, which aims through weekly meetings, special events and projects throughout the year, to support students who have experienced bullying, as well as end bullying at the school.
With some speaking through tears, students took turns sharing their experiences with bullying, and how the club has helped give them a safe, supportive environment and a way to turn their negative experiences into positive action.
One of the group's projects places paper hearts with encouraging messages on every locker in the school. Under each chair at Thursday's event was a blank heart for attendees to write their own messages.
Martirano ended the event by sharing the message he planned to write on his paper heart: "Be kind always, for everyone is fighting a difficult battle."