Schools seek to prevent bullying

Aware that bullying has become a common thread in school-related violence across the country, Howard County is taking steps to prevent harassment from turning to tragedy in its 48,000-student system.

A proposed student code of conduct, up for a vote Thursday, groups bullying, harassment and intimidation into a single category of punishable behaviors and makes them reasons for expulsion.


"We can't laugh off bullying and threats," said Marion D. Miller, director of 21 elementary schools, who chaired a subcommittee that revised the code of conduct. "We can no longer say boys will be boys. We need to handle this seriously. It is not cool to bully, it is not cool to threaten somebody, it is not cool to bring in a weapon."

David A. Bruzga, who directs 15 Howard secondary schools and is a member of the discipline committee, said school systems across the country are taking a more comprehensive stance on bullying and intimidation.


"Part of it is to increase penalties for these offenders as a deterrent," he said.

The system's definition of bullying refers to conduct - including verbal conduct - that creates a hostile educational environment and interferes with a student's physical and psychological well-being. Bullying may be motivated by factors such as race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, religion and disability.

Under the system's current code of conduct, harassment can result in punishment as simple as a talk with a staff member or administrator. Under the pending code, the scale of punishment has been elevated to automatic parental involvement.

"Sometimes we can nip something in the bud and use it as a teachable moment," said Miller. "We wanted to give principals the power to elevate [the punishment]."

This school year, the system has reported 72 bullying incidents to the state, which requires that school systems collect and report statistics on bullying. Pam Blackwell, director of student services, said that not all of the incidents initially reported to the state end up being classified as bullying.

"After they were investigated, they might have been [determined to be] other conflicts," she said.

Bruzga said most bullying is found in high schools and particularly in middle schools.

"This age group is more prone to bullying and to being bullied," he said, attributing that to immaturity, a lack of self-esteem, the need for recognition, the mirroring of behavior exhibited at home and a need for acceptance, among other factors.


Educators agree that bullying is not limited to boys. Blackwell said national attention is being given to bullying by girls.

Blackwell said the school system has embarked on several initiatives to combat bullying. In the latest effort, a 30-member anti-bullying task force has examined anti-bullying approaches in Howard County, in Maryland and across the nation.

"We find out whether or not the programs were successful," Blackwell said of the group, which is made up of parents, community members and one student. "Eventually, we [will] make recommendations to reduce bullying systematically."

Blackwell also conducted a series of information sessions for parents and students, most recently at Rockburn Elementary School, where she discussed the scope of the problem, national trends, cyber-bullying, the role gender plays in bullying and the effects on academic achievement.

"I talk to them [parents] about what they can do," Blackwell said.

Peer mediation programs have been used in most county high schools and in a number of middle schools.


A number of schools have developed their own anti-bullying activities.

Ellicott Mills Middle School has adopted what it calls the "Words Can Heal" campaign. Sixth-graders are required to attend an hourlong workshop during which they explore put-downs and hurtful words and learn to use more positive statements. Seventh- and eighth-graders are asked to sign pledges that ask them not to use put-downs or hurtful statements.

The campaign works, said school counselor Karl Friedheim.

"The biggest difference I notice is when students remind each other [not to use put-downs]," he said. "That's how you know they are getting it."

Fourth-graders at Rockburn Elementary School have formed a Bully Blockers Club.

Patapsco Middle School has adopted the theme "Power of the Bystander," which encourages students to speak out against bullying.


Thunder Hill Elementary School has developed an anti-bullying code of conduct that is sent home to parents at the beginning of the school year. The school also will have a anti-bullying assembly at the end of the month.

"We give them [school] the basics and they can expand on it," Blackwell said.

Bruzga supports all of the efforts.

"We need to do all we can to deter bullying and to provide the nurturing environment that students at that age level need," he said. "We need to work with those who are prone to bullying to help address the issues that are causing that behavior."



Bullying involves conduct - including verbal conduct - that creates a hostile educational environment and interferes with a student's physical and psychological well-being. Such conduct typically is motivated by factors including race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, religion and disability, among others.

[Source: proposed student code of conduct, Howard County schools]