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Bullying is a national problem

March 08, 2008

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- After a boy started a rumor that they'd had sex in a school bathroom, a Washington County Public Schools student said she was teased unmercifully for the rest of the school year.

The boy's friends called her a "slut" and a "bitch" in almost every class, almost every day. The girl said school became a punishment. She was threatened with physical violence and told to "watch her back."

That was during her eighth-grade year at a Hagerstown middle school. Now a freshman at an area high school, the girl said she is trying to put those memories behind her.

"It was like every second in every class something was said," she said. "So it was kind of scary to go to school every day. I started to not want to go to school."

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The Herald-Mail agreed not to publish the girl's name.

During the 2005-06 school year, Washington County Public Schools reported 64 incidents of bullying to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Bullying defined

The school system defines bullying as "intentional negative actions on the part of one or more students, repeatedly and over time, that interfere with a student's ability to participate in or benefit from the school's education programs."

The number of bullying incidents reported to the state fell to 22 in the 2006-07 school year, and so far this school year, there have been about 13 reports.

School system officials did not provide the number of incidents reported at the schools for which paperwork that would have enabled the state to log the incidents was not filled out, despite repeated requests for the information from The Herald-Mail.

The Herald-Mail was told that the data is kept at the school level, and officials declined to provide it when it was requested.

According to data from the 2005-06 school year, most bullies are 12 years old, as are their student victims.

Cheryl Mitchell-Jones, acting supervisor of school counselors, said most reports of bullying come from the county's middle schools.

"The problem with high school bullying is that it's not reported as much," she said.

Teenagers are more likely to fear the consequences of telling an administrator or teacher that they are being bullied, she said.

In the 2005-06 school year, 58 reported incidents of bullying took place on school property, two occurred at a school-sponsored event on school property, three took place on a school bus and one occurred on the way to or from school.

'Kids being kids'

Most bullying in Washington County Public Schools involves teasing, name-calling and making critical remarks or threats.

Mitchell-Jones said that bullying often does not involve larger students demanding lunch money from smaller children, or using force to get what they want. She said more often, girls are bullying each other, and most of the incidents involve teasing, name-calling or excluding students from a group.

Most students cited no specific reason for bullying other students, according to school system data. The highest number of students said they bullied their classmates "just to be mean."

Director of Student Services John Davidson said there is a fine line between "kids being kids" and more serious offenses such as bullying and harassment.

Williamsport High School Principal Henry Bohlander said that some students are not mature enough to understand good behavior. Bad behavior at school often is a direct result of some larger problem at home, he said.

"We have to make sure we don't overreact," Bohlander said. "We don't want to come down too hard on the kids for being teenagers."

Bullying and harassment are not tolerated, and school staff must understand the difference between "kids being kids" and crossing the line into harassment and bullying, he said.

Suspensions

Washington County Public Schools officials provided data for the number of out-of-school suspensions that resulted from bullying. In the 2006-07 school year, there were none, and so far this school year, there has been one. A student at Lincolnshire Elementary School was suspended for bullying.

Davidson said that harassment often leads to bullying unless school officials intervene.

"We stop it at the harassment level, so it doesn't escalate to the bullying level," he said.

In the 2006-07 school year, two students - one at Emma K. Doub and one at Lincolnshire elementary schools - were suspended for harassment.

Three middle school students were suspended in that same year for harassment - two at E. Russell Hicks and one at Western Heights. Thirteen high school students were suspended for harassing their classmates - Boonsboro (seven), Clear Spring (four), Smithsburg (one) and Williamsport (one).

In that same school year, Washington County had 1,090 students suspended from school, with 0.13 percent of suspensions resulting from bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. The state average is 0.32 percent.

So far this school year, there have only been five students suspended for harassment - all in the county's high schools.

Is it a problem?

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