Geneva Moccia is frustrated. Her 7-year-old son, who has a disability and language disorder, is the target of bullies at his elementary school.
“He’s been pushed, knocked down and called names,” she said. “I continue to work with the school, but I don’t accept the ‘kids will be kids’ attitude. I think the school plays it off and I want to know what to do.”
Moccia and about 50 other parents and community representatives met Tuesday night at for a seminar, “The Truth About Bullying.” Lucia Martin, Anne Arundel County school resource counselor, led audience members and a panel of professional and community representatives in a discussion on bullying in area schools.
The topic garnered national headlines last week when the White House hosted a bullying prevention conference, during which President Obama confessed he was picked on as a child for the size of his ears and unusual name. His experience is similar to the results of a 2010 Anne Arundel County school survey in which the majority of students who reported being bullied said it was because of the way they looked, talked or dressed.
“I get calls every day from parents who say, ‘My child is being bullied and the school isn’t doing anything about it,’” said panelist Dr. Leon Washington, county director of safe and orderly schools. “Sometimes it isn’t easy to prove a bullying case. The school relies so much on what we call bystanders, other students who see what happens and will report it. It is so important to tell your kids to participate by being supportive of those being bullied."
Bullying, as defined by the school system, is intentional, repeated, intended to harm, involves a power differential and creates a hostile environment. Each school has a bullying-education program, but the implementation varies among schools.
The county has a bullying, harassment or intimidation reporting form online and is developing a bullying-resource page for its website. At last night’s seminar, Martin led participants through steps parents should take to report bullying and tips on how to help your child deal with a threatening situation.
“Do not tell your child to ignore a bully,” Martin said. “Be supportive and ask your child what he thinks will help. We need to teach our children what to say and how to react and make sure they understand that reporting a bully is not tattling."
If your child has experienced bullying at a school, contact the teacher or administrator and complete a bullying/harassment reporting form. An administrator will investigate and inform the parent of the results. Legally, the administrator cannot provide information about the bully to the victim’s parents.
Once the bullying behavior is verified, discipline will be applied as laid out in the code of student conduct. Following that, a school counselor will develop a “safety plan” to help prevent further occurrences.
Joe Van Duren, owner of in Annapolis, said he believes confidence and a positive self-image can help a child deal with bullies.
“Bullying is about an imbalance of power," he said. "We need to encourage parents to help the child build self-esteem and confidence. Role playing is a great way to teach communication skills. Parents also need to model their behavior because kids will usually do 10 percent of what we tell them and 90 percent of what they see us do.”
But even the most structured plan can’t resolve every problem. A father in the audience spoke about a year-long effort to stop a high-school bully from harassing his daughter. Two weeks ago, after failing to reach a resolution, he began home schooling his child.
“Bystanders aren’t reporting bullying because they are scared," he said. "That bully is still at the school and my daughter is missing out on normal school activities.”
“We try, but we can’t solve every situation,” Martin said in an interview. “I am so saddened to hear these stories from parents. We will work with them to solve the problems. The school system does a lot, but you can still see the frustration.”
Making bullies aware of consequences to their actions is important. Lt. J.D. Batten, a panelist and commander of the county police’s School Safety Section, shared a recent incident in which a middle school boy was called names, threatened and “terrorized” in a school restroom.
“It’s easy for a kid to understand how that incident is a violation of the student code of conduct," Batten said. "But kids need to understand that incident is also a criminal assault and that’s where law enforcement gets involved. Starting in middle school we try to make them aware of adult accountability. Schools can’t solve everything.”