On Sunday, Maryland’s First Lady, Katie O’Malley attended a special screening of the new film Bully at the Bowtie Cinemas at Harbour Center. After the show, Ms. O’Malley was joined by two members of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Administration, Dr. Gayle Cicero, Director of Student Services, and Lucia Martin, Coordinator of School Counseling and WRNR’s Alex Cortright for a 45 minute Q&A session.
The film itself was very powerful despite the dark message it delivers. The documentary follows students from high schools in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma during the school year of 2009 to 2010; it also follows their families. Of particular import is the suicides of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, victims of bullying who took their own lives. The message is how the average American school kid can’t defend himself against bullying.
The screening had about 100 in attendance–parents, students, and teachers.
After the film, many students stood up to ask questions and relate stories to the First Lady and the administration representatives. Students as young as fifth grade told stories of the types of bullying witnessed in Anne Arundel County Schools. Some of it may be considered “minor” such as making faces; yet much of it was physical. One very wise sixth grader explained how she has lost “friends” when she was bullied. “I can always get another friend, and the mean things they say won’t mean anything to me.”
Another student in the audience asked what to do when a report of bullying is dismissed summarily by an administrator. Lucia Martin, Coordinator of School Counseling said that she should find another adult and report it again until someone listens. Hopefully this is an isolated instance. Would most kids (certainly elementary and middle school aged ones) know to go to another adult? Children are taught to go to a responsible adult when they need help. We do not really do a good enough job of helping them to determine that responsibility.
One teacher, who did not give his name or school, explained how his administration puts pressure on the staff to not report bullying. He cited times when he filled out a bullying report only to be told to fill out the less consequential “Minor Incident Report.” The First Lady was shocked and assured him that any directive such as that was not coming from the State level. When Ms. O’Malley looked to Lucia Martin, Coordinator of School Counseling, Martin said that it was evident that the administration needs to do a better job of explaining bullying to the staff.
A Crofton mother contacted Eye On Annapolis to share her frustrations when her child was bullied at Crofton Elementary School in October 2011 and the school administration did not handle it in a timely manner. Following, is the letter she wrote to Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Monique Davis:
Let me start by saying I am going to write a letter without telling you where I went to school, what degree I hold and what I do for a living! I am not going to use big words and make myself seem righteous and important! All I am is a very concerned parent that has been reading the many letters that have been forwarded to your office and am really upset that the main topic of focus has been taken away by everybody making their own assumptions!
This situation has and never had anything to do with race, religion, social stature, gender or anything else that is not important. As a parent of a child that was directly affected by the bullying I am outraged at where this situation has gone! I could care less if this kid was white, yellow, orange or green and where he came from! That is not and never was what our problem was with him!
Our child was threatened by him shortly after he started at this school! He threatened to kill her, she came home upset and in tears. I immediately called the school and was informed that Mrs. Kauffman [Principal] was gone for the day but I could speak to Mrs. Hicks [Vice Principal] ! I spoke to Mrs. Hicks who told me “this boy is from the inner city schools, he has no filter but he is harmless”. I had nothing else to go on so I trusted her, I trusted that she knew what she was talking about and that my child was safe! A few weeks go by and the kid is still making verbal threats to Kaitlyn but it hadn’t escalated beyond that point so her father and I both told her to ignore him and walk away! Then it went beyond the verbal threats and he spit in my child’s face. That was completely unacceptable, I called and left a message for Mrs. Kauffman with my name and number and the reason for my call! She never returned my call that day. When I picked Kaitlyn up from school she came out crying and would not tell me what was wrong, she wanted to wait until we got in the car. I got her in the car and started driving home and she said the boy had thrown her down on the floor face first in the middle of the classroom with the teacher and other students present and stepped on the middle of her back with all his weight so she couldn’t get up! She started crying loudly and other students came to her aide!
As soon as I walked in the door I called and demanded that Mrs. Kauffman be put on the phone! I wasn’t leaving a message, I wanted to talk to her. She got on the phone and said “I saw your note earlier but didn’t realize you wanted me to call you back!” I said “generally when people leave their name and number with a message they are expecting a call back but that’s not why I am calling”! I talked to her about the situation and told her that I was going to call the police since my child’s school can’t seem to protect her! She said “you can call the police but they won’t do anything since it happened at school” she had absolutely no empathy for Kaitlyn or me for that matter! She said she was aware of what happened and would take action but could not tell me what actions would be taken! This happened on a Thursday and the boy wasn’t in school on Friday but was back on Monday! So for physical violence witnessed by students and a teacher he received a one day suspension! That is completely unacceptable and his punishments certainly did not fit his crime. My child had back pain all night long and her father was contemplating taking her to urgent care!
My child who is in 5th grade was terrified to come to school and was in tears every morning. She didn’t want to go to school because not only did she not feel safe, she was the one that got reprimanded by Ms. Hicks and Mrs. Kauffman for what the other kid did to her! This kid took 6 months away from her and any other 5th grader that was at his wrath! This was supposed to be a fun year, the last year of elementary school, the last year before middle school and high school responsibilities started. Due to the current administrations inability to keep my child safe in a controlled setting, Kaitlyn will miss her 5th grade field trip. I don’t feel safe sending her a few hours away and trust that they will protect her on the streets when they couldn’t protect her at school.
As far as I am concerned the downfall in this system is that by the administration’s lack of punishment and consequences they enabled this child to continue to act out and bully other kids and teachers! I do not send my children to school to be beat up on by other ill-mannered children, they are sent to school to be educated, supervised and protected by adults in a supervisory position. If the administration can’t handle that task then they certainly are not doing their job nor are they fit to do the job.
I went above the schools administration and came straight to you Dr. Davis with my problem. I spoke to your assistant Devon Smith who was the first person to apologize to me for what my child had gone through and talked to me at length about what steps I should take, like filling out the bullying form. She even advised that I press charges but my husband and I were worried about what kind of retaliation this child was capable of!
What I can’t seem to understand is that this child obviously came with a history. This physical violence in him did not just manifest when he started at CES, so why was he enrolled there to start! With his track record he should have automatically been enrolled into a school like Odenton Elementary that is capable of handling a situation such as his! Nobody is taking his right to a public education nor are they discriminating against a child with special needs! But a child with special needs should be in an environment capable of tending to his needs! It was an EPIC FAIL on everybody involved (including his parents/guardians) in his registration that didn’t place him in a setting that could adequately meet his needs involving his disabilities.
That is what this whole situation was about and why I have concerns with the current administration. So for people to assume that we are “bullying” the principal or that we are being “racist” as a community leaves me even more frustrated then I was before. I would be just as upset if this kid was of any race or ethnicity or gender for that matter!
I hope this letter finds its way to parents that don’t know the situation so they can better understand the frustration employed into our community!
[Name Withheld By Eye On Annapolis]
Subsequently, we spoke with the parent and after the community voiced their concerns (her daughter was not the only victim) some changes were finally made after the bully attacked a teacher and the police had to be called. Just this month, the bully was finally transferred to a school better able to handle his behavioral issues. She praised Dr. Davis and her staff for resolving the issue, “Dr. Monique Davis and her office were wonderful and she stepped up to the plate and took things by the horns when our principal didn’t.”
According to this parent the situation currently stands with a lot of upset parents who feel the current administration refuses to take a stand against bullying and is calling for their reassignment. We asked what was done at the school level to address the parents’ concerns. “The parents even asked for a “forum” type meeting with the principal, vice principal, board of Ed and teachers to speak about the situation! Ms. Kauffman claimed she did nothing wrong and handled everything appropriately! She never apologized even when parent after parent stood and spoke of what happened to their child all from the same kid!”
One of the messages from the film was that schools are unable to control acts of bullying on the buses and it seems to be a problem in Anne Arundel County as well. Parents questioned why bus drivers were not empowered to at least stop the bus when a disruption occurs. Several parents recollected instances from their youth where bus incidents were handled quickly by pulling over and an adult becoming involved. A December story in the Edgewater-Davidsonville Patch highlighted this when a Crofton teen became involved in a fight after getting off the bus in front of the South River High School. The videos have been removed, but while the teens were fighting, a school bus sat nearby with the driver merely honking the horn. It took several minutes before an adult stepped in and pulled the girls apart. Eye On Annapolis was provided with a similar video (different incident) involving two girls during dismissal. The fight was eventually broken up by another student.
Bullying And Fighting Are Rampant
Stories from students seem to indicate that a week doesn’t go by without some sort of physical fight breaking out. In fact, one South River High School freshman (after seeing the film) claimed that he sees bullying in the schools daily. Are the schools brushing this under the table to preserve their rankings?
In October 2010, a high school sophomore was beaten so badly , that he lost sight in one eye for a period and had to be flown from the school by helicopter to a shock-trauma center in Baltimore. The school refused to classify the beating as an “assault” and deemed it an “altercation” and the assailants reportedly received a 10-day suspension . Citing confidentiality at the time (convenient and oft used) the administration would not comment other than to say it was up to the individual schools to classify the incidents.
Definition Of Bully
The definition of bullying, according to the Anne Arundel County Public Schools’ Student Handbook (PDF, Page 38 of 40) is pretty clear.
Intentional conduct, including verbal, physical, or written conduct, or an intentional electronic communication, that: (I) creates a hostile educational environment by substantially interfering with a student’s educational benefits, opportunities, or performance, or with a student’s physical or psychological well-being and is: 1. motivated by an actual or a perceived personal characteristic including race, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ancestry, physical attribute, socioeconomic status, familial status, or physical or mental ability or disability; or 2. threatening or seriously intimidating; and (II) 1. occurs on school property, at a school activity or event, or on a school bus; or 2. substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a school. Electronic communication means a communication transmitted by means of an electronic device, including a telephone, cellular phone, computer, or pager.
It seems that if the administration desired, many infractions could certainly fall under that wide sweeping definition. Why is it seemingly under utilized? Another student from Northeast High School said that while there are acts of bullying at school, it seems that the teachers and administration doesn’t care. He said that aside from a few posters on the walls and a brief mention at an assembly in the beginning of the year, not much else is said.
Bullying, in one form or another, has been around for ages. Forty years ago, it may have been verbal taunting and teasing. However, today, it has escalated. As shown above, there are elementary school students being assaulted in the schools with little being done.
And while parents have a very reasonable expectation that their children will be safe in the care of the schools (including buses), they also play a role. The primary function of schools is to educate children. The moral direction of these children is greatly influenced by their home life. Children are great emulators. They watch and learn from the adults in their lives. They watch doors being held. They watch conversations peppered with “please” and “thank you.” They see that physical violence is rarely the answer. And of course, in the wrong environment at home, they see the opposite. Parents are crucial to the development of kids and must be a positive role model for their children.
This is a huge issue for students everywhere–countywide, statewide, and nationally, and something needs to be done. To our student readers, please leave a comment with your thoughts on bullying–have you been bullied, are you a bully, how often (or infrequently) do you witness it. To our parent readers, what do you think? What are your experiences? To our teacher readers–your input is critical. It is an uncomfortable conversation (as was the film to watch) but it is one that needs to be discussed. Are our schools safe? Let’s get this conversation started!
For more information on bullying:
- Stop Bullying: Speak Up (Facebook)
- Bullying Resources (Maryland First Lady)
- Cyber-bullying: Schools, parents work to keep pace with evolving problem (Baltimore Sun)
- Parents Advocacy Network (Bullying)