Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose announced on Friday two new measures to prevent bullying before and after the school bell rings.
County residents now have access to an online reporting system to help track and respond to bullying incidents countywide. And 100 of the county's buses have been equipped with cameras so that school administrators can review bullying that happens on the road to and from school.
Both initiatives are part of the new "Stand Up HoCo" campaign, a comprehensive, countywide effort to ensure that bullying is addressed in all arenas of Howard County life. Ulman said the county was the first in the nation to take on bullying at the community level.
"Bullying is everywhere, and it's real," Ulman said at the program launch at the Dancel Family Center Y in Ellicott City. "We recognize that no one can tackle this alone."
The county worked with anti-bullying software company Sprigeo to develop a mobile and online reporting system for bullying incidents. The program was funded largely through $250,000 included in the county budget for bullying prevention efforts.
Visitors to http://hoco.sprigeo.com can send in reports of bullying, anonymous or otherwise, which will then be reviewed and sent to adults in charge at the site of the incident.
Ulman said more than 250 county locations were in the system, and users can enter any locations that aren't already there. Several county and community organizations are partnering with the county government for the initiative, including the Y of Central Maryland, the Howard County Library System, the Columbia Association, the Elkridge Youth Organization and Howard County Youth Programs.
"To truly combat this issue of bullying, it takes a village," Ulman said. The Sprigeo program is "a way to report bullying wherever it happens."
A county survey of more than 300 kids and 2,400 adults found that two-thirds of kids surveyed report having been bullied. Half of those kids had been bullied in the past 30 days, and more than 80 percent of the children surveyed had witnessed the bullying of a peer.
Chris McComas, the mother of 15-year-old Glenelg High School sophomore Grace McComas, who took her life last year after experiencing persistent cyberbullying, attended the launch.
District 1 County Council member Courtney Watson said Grace "is a force for good, a force for change and a force for transformation in this county."
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who spoke at the launch, thanked the McComas family for their efforts to "put a face on" bullying.
Cardin said the Internet created a new realm for bullies to pick on others. "It has transformed our world and presented us with new challenges," he said. He said Howard County's new system could be used nationwide.
"We are listening" at the federal level, Cardin said. "This will let our students know that they're not alone and we want to help them."
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According to Ulman, the second most common place for children to be bullied is on the school bus.
Foose, who was once a school bus driver, said "no child should be afraid to come and go from school."
In addition to the 100 school buses currently equipped with four cameras each, another 111 buses are on track to get cameras by the end of the year, which would mean about half of the county's buses would have the devices.
The cameras will not be monitored live, but administrators will have access to the images, which will be stored on locked hard drives for three weeks after they are gathered, to review any reported incidents.
Kylie Zuiderhof, a junior at Mt. Hebron High School and a member of the county's Voices For Change youth committee, said the group was "excited to see things come to fruition" on the bullying issue.
Zuiderhof, who has been a victim of bullying, said the new systems were a positive step for the county because they allowed kids to avoid embarrassing situations or harassment by reporting bullying anonymously.
"Right now, we have green forms, which means you have to go grab them and everyone knows what they are," she said. "This way, no one has to know you're reporting it… people who are bystanders especially don't have to feel ashamed or like they're going to be attacked for reporting bullying."