Stronger steps needed to combat bullying

As the executive director of a nonprofit education organization, I have taught anti-bullying workshops for 10 years, but I am still shocked by the tragedies that are a direct result of bullying. Recently, I was shaken by what happened to one particular bullying victim.

In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in a stairwell of her family's home in South Hadley, Mass. According to officials, Phoebe, a high school freshman, was brutally bullied for months before she killed herself. She was one of thousands of children who endure bullying in our schools and communities each day.

Without systemic change Phoebe Prince will not be the last fatality. And it's easy to imagine that the next tragedy could happen right here in Maryland.

The Maryland Board of Education's Model Anti-Bullying, Harassment, and Intimidation Policy quotes a report stating that there were 1,257 school suspensions/expulsions in Maryland in the 2007-08 school year for bullying. Maryland enacted tough anti-bullying legislation in 2008 (HB 199) that requires the reporting of bullying incidents by schools and the adoption of anti-bullying policies by state and county school boards.

However, as outlined in the 2005 Maryland Safe Schools Reporting Act, a student must still report bullying. The lack of accountability for all parties involved, including school officials who may witness incidents, is still a concern. Massachusetts officials did not charge any school officials, even though there are reports circulating that school officials witnessed the bullying. Everyone involved must have a process to report bullying if it is to be stopped — and we must all understand bullying.

A research study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development defines bullying as "behavior intended to harm or disturb the victim. This behavior occurs repeatedly over time and involves an imbalance of power, with the more powerful person or group attacking the less powerful one. Bullying can be physical, involving hitting or otherwise attacking the other; verbal, involving name calling or threats; or psychological, involving spreading rumors or excluding a person."

Bullying, teasing, and social exclusion occur at every age. Statistics show:

•An estimated 5.7 million, or 30 percent, of children in grades 6-10 are involved in bullying as a bully, a target, or both.

•160,000 students miss school each day for fear of being bullied.

•43 percent of teens aged 13-17 report that they have experienced some sort of cyber bullying in the past year.

Experts once thought that children were capable of adjusting easily to stressful situations. Myths abound: that bullying is just part of growing up, that bullying builds character, that only children who are "different" get bullied. But bullying is not a phase, and it does not just pass. The long-term effects of bullying on children are physical, emotional, psychological, social and academic. Bullying has been linked to diminished social competence and to learning issues in the classroom.

It is ineffective to address only the bully and the target. We must empower bystanders and educate the community at large. In my work, we have found that bullying can be reduced by 50 percent when it is addressed at multiple levels. Together, we can reduce bullying and change social norms by promoting social-emotional skills. These are the skills that allow us to manage our emotions and behaviors, show understanding and empathy for others, form positive relationships, work and problem-solve collaboratively, and deal with conflict effectively. Research shows that these skills don't just reduce bullying; they lead to overall life success.

Last week in South Hadley, six people were arraigned (three as juveniles) on charges in the case of Phoebe Prince. Holding these people accountable for their actions and treating bullying like the crime it can be is an important step, and I applaud these officials.

But everyone who knows of or witnesses bullying must be held accountable, or many more lives will forever be changed by what is a preventable crime. While Maryland is one of the nation's leaders in anti-bullying policies, more can be done. We must all understand bullying so that we all recognize problem behavior and have a chance to act before it escalates to the level we saw recently in our national news headlines.

Anne Townsend is executive director at Mariposa Child Success Programs in Maryland.