Md. to Use Data to Combat Bullying

Incidents of bullying or other harassment most often occur on school campuses or buses, a new state report says.
Incidents of bullying or other harassment most often occur on school campuses or buses, a new state report says. (By Jessica Tefft For The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Maryland's middle school students are more likely than their elementary or high school peers to be involved in incidents of bullying and other harassment, according to a recently released state report -- the first such effort to track the problem.

Incidents most often took place on school campuses or buses, the report said, with the majority involving name calling or threatening remarks. About one-third of the incidents involved a physical attack.

The 21-page report to the General Assembly is an attempt by state officials to count incidents of bullying and other harassment in its 24 public school systems. Officials in Virginia have been collecting information on bullying and other harassment in public schools since 1999.

Maryland officials say they hope the data will help school systems select programs to address what many parents see as a significant safety issue. "A lot of the data we have been using is national data," said Charles Buckler, director of the Student Services and Alternative Programs Branch of the Maryland State Department of Education. "The good thing about this report is that it's giving us some Maryland-specific data."

But Buckler cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the report. He said that in some cases the numbers may be skewed because some school systems may be more aggressive about reporting bullying and other harassment than others.

"If you have a school system that's been sensitized to the issue, one that's been on the forefront, it's going to have people who are more ready to use these forms," Buckler said.

He also noted that under the law, the report includes only incidents reported by students, their parents or other family members. Reports by teachers or other school staff members are not included.

Buckler's comments point to the difficulty that many educators face in addressing bullying and other harassment. The incidents can be defined in different ways, and school systems may have varying standards for what triggers a report. For example, is name calling automatically harassment, or does it depend on the insult used?

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said that even though Virginia has had a reporting system for several years, the state is working to refine its definitions in hopes of improving the reports' accuracy.

Between Sept. 1 and Jan. 13, 1,054 incidents of bullying and other harassment in Maryland public schools were reported -- or 1.4 incidents for every 1,000 students, according to the report. Frederick County, with an enrollment of 40,000, reported the highest number of incidents in the state with 137. By contrast, Montgomery County, the state's largest system, with about 139,000 students, reported 66. Prince George's reported 11 incidents among its 133,000 students. Baltimore City public schools did not participate.

The report found that the majority of those bullied were between ages 11 and 14, with the most frequent victims being 12-year-olds; those most frequently responsible for bullying were 13-year-olds. This is consistent with research that has found that more bullying and other harassment occurs in middle school than in elementary or high school, the report said.

About half of the incidents -- 52.8 percent -- were committed "just to be mean" or "to impress others.'' Personal characteristics such as sex, race, sexual orientation, religion or disability were a factor in 25 percent of the incidents.

State officials said that although the numbers offer some insight, the extent of the problem probably is larger than the figures indicate because some incidents go unreported.

Sharon Boettinger, supervisor of counseling and student support services in the Frederick County public school system, said the reports will help the system identify trends, such as where bullying is most prevalent and the reasons why kids bully.

"It's interesting information," she said.

In Montgomery County, where officials at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School are grappling with a spate of incidents in which black students have been the target of racially offensive language, system officials said the data will be used to refine programs targeted at the prevention of bullying.

"The more data that you have, the more you can look over time to see if there are trends," said Stephen Zagami, director of student services for the school system. At Pyle, administrators met two weeks ago with parent leaders, county officials and community groups in an attempt to find ways to deal with the issue.

Before the Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005 was enacted, systems tracked incidents of bullying or other harassment only if the students involved were suspended or expelled. But as the recent report found, only about one in five reported incidents results in suspension or expulsion. Absent the new tracking system, "the majority of these incidents would not have been reported" to the state, the report said.

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