In Maryland, A Plan to Tackle Bullies in Class

Sunday, April 20, 2008

One of the most significant pieces of legislation to come out of the 425th Maryland legislative session would require the State Board of Education to develop a model policy to prohibit bullying, harassment and intimidation in schools. This law, if signed, would have a significant effect on public health and safety in Maryland. More than 2,000 incidents of bullying were reported in Maryland public schools in the 2005-06 school year, compared with 1,000 the previous year, according to a Jan. 25 Post story.

There is evolving research indicating that bullying is a potentially lethal form of abuse that affects people of all ages. It happens not only in schools but also increasingly on the Internet and via cellphones, in neighborhoods and summer camps, between siblings, as hazing among young adults, and in the adult workplace. During the past two decades, bullying has been linked to hundreds of deaths worldwide, underscoring the need to address this urgent public health issue.

Reporting of bullying incidents should not be viewed as a way of getting the bully penalized, because many victimizers experience the same health and educational hazards as the victims. School intervention should be based not on punitive measures but instead on counseling the perpetrator to become sensitive to the harm caused to the victim, followed by a process of "restorative justice" by apologizing to the victim and establishing a positive future interaction, while appropriate support is given to the victim.

Schools and parents in Maryland need to work closely with health professionals to help students who persist in bullying others in spite of school intervention. Health-care referral is needed for bullies and victims who are suffering from physical and emotional symptoms.

This law would pave the way for future legislative anti-bullying efforts to protect all Maryland children and adolescents attending public and private schools, as well as those who have been placed in residential facilities or correctional institutions. Zero tolerance for bullying is not enough unless accompanied by improvements in the school psychological environment.

Maryland should look at public policy strategies that involve the participation of public health officials to promote community understanding of the health problems linked to bullying, provide guidelines for the detection of health problems and work with school authorities to conduct periodic assessments of the prevalence of bullying. Community partnerships are essential to promote understanding about bullying and to advocate for its prevention.

-- Jorge C. Srabstein


-- Joseph L. Wright


The writers are, respectively, an attending psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and executive director of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children's National Medical Center.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company