City school officials have stepped up education efforts and are stressing proper reporting methods after a third-grader who was a victim of chronic bullying at a West Baltimore elementary school said she wanted to kill herself.
The city teachers union is also pledging to work with the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to hold a bullying-prevention program at Gilmor Elementary School, the site of the incidents.
The actions come after complaints of severe bullying at the school, which included a third-grader who has cerebral palsy saying that she suffered repeated verbal and physical abuse. The girl's mother said the 8-year-old wanted to kill herself by trying to jump from a second-story window after students beat her. The city school system says the classroom teacher reported that the child was not at a window but made a comment that she wanted to commit suicide.
Maryland has tried to encourage parents to report bullying, but it is unclear how fully the efforts have been embraced in Baltimore.
Beginning four years ago, every jurisdiction was required to provide parents with a form to complete if they believe their child is being bullied. Schools are required to investigate, and parents can bring concerns to top administrators in the district or to state education leaders if they believe the issue hasn't been addressed, said Charles Buckler, director of student services and alternative services for the Maryland State Department of Education.
"Baltimore City has historically reported low turn-ins of those forms," Buckler said. "It is hard to imagine a school system of that size would not have more reported bullying going on."
The system posts the form on its website. In other districts, the forms are sent home to parents at the beginning of each school year.
Jonathan Brice, executive director for student support for city schools, said parents still call schools to report bullying to teachers and school administrators. This school year, there have been 105 incidents of students suspended for bullying in the district, compared with 79 last year, he said. He attributed the increase to greater awareness and training.
"It is not that city schools are not following through and addressing bullying," Brice said.
Gilmor Elementary's principal, Ledonnis Hernandez, has met with parents and faculty in the past few days to reiterate the school system's protocol on bullying, and an automated phone call denouncing bullying also went out to parents, Brice said.
He said school officials are reminding students that if they see bullying or they are bullied they should go to adults in the building, and that "students are going to be given the appropriate consequences for that behavior."
School officials said three students have been suspended for bullying since Shaniya Boyd, an 8-year-old student at Gilmor, was attacked; one of those students is accused of attacking her. Overall, 17 Gilmor pupils have been suspended for bullying this year, Brice said.
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said that while there has been bullying at the school, she doesn't believe it is a widespread problem there. "Kids do fight," she said, and teachers are working to address it.
In response to allegations made by Shaniya's mother, Geneva Biggus, that the bullying was never addressed by school leaders despite numerous reports and meetings, city school officials said they have followed the system's code of conduct.
The code outlines the protocol of addressing bullying incidents, placing most of the responsibility on parents to report the allegations and on school principals to handle the incidents internally.
But the school system's parent advisory board chairman said Wednesday that the protocol might have to be reviewed.
Dennis Moulden, chair of the school system's Parent and Community Advisory Board, said Wednesday that the process might have failed Shaniya and other students who are bullied.
"It appears that the system for reporting it isn't as leakproof as it should be," Moulden said. "I realize that the procedure that was outlined in the code of conduct may need to be revisited because it doesn't seem to be working."
Moulden said the parent advisory board pored over the bullying section of the code of conduct when members helped write it two years ago. But he said it appears that in most cases of bullying — and he said he has been contacted about many — the outcome ultimately depends on how seriously school leaders handle the situations.
"I know of [incidents] that have been handled well, and I know of others that were pushed under the table where the principal just thought it was going to go away," he said. "It's been a persistent thing, and it depends on the principal."
Brice said central office officials have worked with Gilmor's principal to install a plan that would enable her to better monitor and respond to incidents of bullying. But he said an investigation determined that the school took appropriate measures in Shaniya's case.
Parents of Gilmor students said Wednesday that families are as responsible for children's behavior as school leaders are for overseeing it.
Chanel Jones, whose daughter, Talia, is in second grade at Gilmor, said, "The children are just doing what they see at home."
Jones said Talia won't be attending third grade at Gilmor next year, because she doesn't "want to jeopardize her education."
Shandia Johnson, who has a second-grader at Gilmor, agreed that the behavior problems at the school probably are a result of poor parenting.
"It really starts at home, and it's but so much the school and teachers can do," she said.
"But the question is, what are they going to do about it? Why did it have to be in the news for them to say anything? Why did it get to the point where that little girl needed to go to a window?"
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.