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Combating bullying in Prince George’s schools

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Published on: Wednesday, January 30, 2013

By Jason Ruiter

Two years ago, what should have been Anthony Smith’s great first-day of kindergarten at Accokeek Academy ended with his face against the bus-window after refusing to say the F-word at the command of a few fourth-graders on the bus.

Anthony’s father, Timothy, went to school administrators to stop the problem. Smith has been getting the same “song and dance” from administrators ever since. His son, now 7-years-old, has been beaten up four times since that first day of kindergarten and called racial slurs on numerous occasions. His most recent physical encounter was about a month ago, Smith said.

“My father talked about it, and I still got beaten up. Nothing, nothing’s been helping out. … And I just — I don’t know why it keeps happening,” Anthony said, speaking to the Prince George’s County Council at its Jan. 15 meeting.

The sensitivity of the situation was palpable, as some visitors and council members gasped, shook their heads and muttered disapproval as Anthony quietly relayed his bullying experience.

Smith arrived with his family, which consists of five other children who are all younger than Anthony, and his wife with a child on the way. He moved to Maryland after Hurricane Katrina wrecked his home in Louisiana back in 2006 and now works in Washington, D.C., as a special forces police officer.

Every one of his kids, Smith said, is going to end up attending Accokeek Academy.

After the first incident, Smith called the Accokeek Academy principal, who told him to talk to transportation since the issues were occurring on the bus. 

Smith, who is white, told the council that when he was put on hold, he heard the operator put the phone down and say, “Well, now he knows how we feel.”

Smith also called the Prince George’s County Police Department out of desperation. They told him that he should teach his son how to fight. Not knowing what to do, Smith turned to the County Council.

“This is a terrible situation. You don’t deserve that. You deserve a high quality education and to have your children be protected just like everyone else. This is intolerable,” Councilman Mel Franklin, District 9, said.

County Council Chair Andrea Harrison, District 5, called for a meeting with the superintendent and other top-tier administrators in Prince George’s County Public Schools.

On Jan. 22, the directors of Student Services, Transportation and Security Services as well as Police Chief Mark Magaw discussed bullying and safety of the county’s public schools — a system that has 123,000 students and 16,000 teachers and staff.

“We wanted to make sure that we understood the process, but we also wanted them (the administrators) to understand that we were concerned about this,” Harrison said.

Current Maryland statute on bullying involves a written report, which can be filled out by anyone, and a mandatory investigation. Franklin was concerned about students who were afraid of retribution for handing in the report.

“Some of the principals have done creative things,” said Diane Powell, director of Department of Student Services. The written reports “are available in counselors’ offices, bathrooms. They can be downloaded at home. They can be reported anonymously.”

Most often, an adult, and not a student, will file the written report.

The statute mandates that a written report must be filed after any known incident of bullying. Since its introduction in 2009, the number of reported incidents spiked from 77 in the 2008-2009 school year to 488 the following year. In 2012, the numbers dropped to 325 reports.

However, many incidents go unreported, and although 4 percent of incidents have been off of school property, there is also cyberbullying, which is neither verbal or physical and harder to detect.

To combat bullying, Prince George’s County schools follow the procedures of the statute and the school district trains counselors on anti-bullying. The county also has a “Peace Week” from Feb. 11 to Feb. 15 to promote anti-bullying through various activities, including an anti-bullying rap song with the morning announcements, a play, videos and posters. Powell said they hope to implement more programs of this type.

“If our schools aren’t a safe and orderly place for our children to grow,  then we will never move this county forward,” Councilwoman Mary Lehman, District 1, said. 

Just around the area of Accokeek Academy, two teenagers were arrested in a slaying of a 16-year-old boy during a party in Fort Washington, allegedly from a small gang feud, the Washington Post reported.

The majority of bullying incidents in Prince George’s County — 75 percent — happen on school property, but nearly a quarter of incidents happened either to and from school (11 percent) and on the bus (10 percent).

New bus-driver hires are receiving bullying and intimidation training, said Tom Bishop, the director of transportation.

“Some of the board members did ride-alongs last year,” said Verjeana Jacobs, Chair of the county’s Board of Education. “We recognized a great need for cameras.”

Only 60 percent of Prince George’s County school buses have cameras, according to Bishop. The cameras, which are digital, are only reviewed after an incident, most often to exonerate a bus-driver. Only transportation staff members review the video, and it automatically writes over itself every two weeks.

Students can be switched buses as part of a solution to stop bulling and fighting.

Bishop acknowledged that the lack of cameras was a budgetary issue, but Jacobs cautioned over-dependence on technology in combating bullying.

“We know that children are children,” Harrison said. “ Some (of) us have been victims ... growing up. In recent years, a number of people have taken their own lives because they couldn’t handle it anymore. If we lose one child, that’s one too many.”

Bullying is hard to stop, Harrison said in a phone interview after the council meeting. The larger goal has been in preventing suicides and mental harm on the students.

County Council members were also concerned that anti-bullying training was given only to counselors and not teachers.

“Some kids never even see a guidance counselor. That’s too passive of an approach,” said Lehman, who added that seeing a counselor in some schools isn’t mandatory and that there is only one counselor per elementary school.

As the Jan. 22 council meeting went on, it became apparent that transportation had more issues than just cameras. Out of 190 daily bus routes, 30 to 60 bus drivers, about a quarter, are out on long-term leave. In addition to those on long-term leave, other drivers are calling out for sick days. There could be “120 drivers out on a given day,” Bishop said.

“ I believe the message is there,” Harrison said after the hearing. “That we’re watching (the school administrators.) … We need to begin to teach people to love unconditionally. Unfortunately, some of that has gone away in this society.”

PGCPS acting deputy superintendent for academics A. Duane Arbogast, standing in for Interim Superintendent Alvin Crawley, said the same to County Council members during the hearing.

“I believe we need to begin sourcing culture change. … Schools are a reflection of our culture,” he said.

Smith no longer thinks that there will be any issues for his son, Anthony, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the hearing.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” Smith said. “If my situation helps people, that’s great, but this was all for my son.”

Reader Comments - 2 Total

captcha 90aade4f5ec84e9091e4c40caf62bf81

Posted By: Sherlin On: 1/14/2014

Title: Still an issue

I am now facing this issue myself. The principal cares not. The district cares not. I'm sitting in the lobby of PG county police department with an officer who is saying: yea. It happened to my daughter. Bullying happens. I moved away.
I'm also being told there's no reason for a police report. I hear him laughing as he talks to the principal. I'm told that my report won't be investigated. I'm at wits end.

Posted By: Tim Smith On: 3/22/2013

Title: Thank You

I'm Anthonys dad and I just wanted to thank you for being the only reporter to cover the ACTUAL meeting instead of the talking points and minutes. Your story was to the point and I appreciate your bravery in covering the race issue. FYI, Councilwoman Lehman was the only council member who tried to help, my own dostricts councilman hasn't contacted me since the meeting.


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