Bullying: Per the definition of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, it’s a “repeated, conscious, willful and deliberate, direct/indirect action with the intent to physically or psychologically intimidate or distress someone else; physical, social, verbal actions, or intimidation toward another person with negative intent.”
In an ever-changing world where students have access to more information and communication than generations before them, and where mental illness is entering their lives at an earlier age, bullying becomes an increasingly harder problem to address.
To combat bullying and other social/mental issues faced by youth, a group of parents have come together to form the Anne Arundel County Parent Coalition, which, per its mission statement, has been working with Anne Arundel County Public Schools to push for more transparency, accountability and communication.
“I have seen significant growth in the last month,” said Pasadena resident Jennifer Sowers, who established the group on Facebook and serves as its director. “We have added about 55 new members in the last month. We’re almost at 900 members. With that amount of parents speaking out and looking for resources, it speaks volumes that there are changes that need to be made.”
AACPS has committed to working with AACPC on finding solutions but concedes that it is only part of the puzzle. “This is a bigger issue than the school system,” said Bob Mosier, chief communications officer for AACPS. “This is a community issue. We have children six and a half hours a day. We have them 18% of a week. The other 82% of the time, they’re at home, at church, in the community, at work, at dance lessons and so on. We need help in the 82%. That’s why it has to be a community effort.”
Jessica Ewing, a parent of a Jacobsville Elementary student and a member of the coalition, echoed Mosier’s sentiment but wants assurance that schools are a safe place. “Nobody is asking for the schools to raise their kids. Parents have to take responsibility,” she said. “But when my daughter walks into that school building, during the time she is there, the school is responsible for her welfare.”
AACPS has implemented processes over the years — and remains open to improvement based on the input of parents and other stakeholders — to help curb bullying and help students who are going through crisis. Mosier explained that schools have advisory lessons on a grade-appropriate basis, and AACPS provides forms available so parents and students can report bullying.
“One area of consternation,” Mosier said, “is that parents don’t always get to know everything they want to know about the perpetrator in a bullying case. That’s a federal privacy law. … There’s a difference in transparency and violating the law.” He explained that parents might call their child’s school to find out about a bully, but administrators are not at liberty to disclose information about another child. They can say appropriate action was taken to address the problem, but they cannot discuss what that specific action was.
“We tell parents as much as we can legally tell them,” Mosier said. “I get it – as a parent myself, I get the frustration of not being able to get answers to every question.”
Sowers believes the schools are not doing an adequate job following through with reported problems of bullying, a point she brought up in a recent meeting with Superintendent Dr. George Arlotto. “Dr. Arlotto is adamant that incident reports are evaluated by administrators and administrators then complete a bullying report as they see fit,” Sowers explained. “I do not agree with this and still believe that though incident reports may play a valuable role in an investigation, they are being used inappropriately and are skewing the data that rolls up to the state.”
Forms to report bullying can be found at www.aacps.org/antibullying under the right-hand column titled “Online Reporting.” Parents should follow up on any submitted form with their child’s school afterward.
Looking forward, both Sowers and Mosier agreed that they want to see parents and the school system working together. Although Sowers said Arlotto “expressed concern” over her posts on the AACPC Facebook group, she believes speaking out on social media is appropriate. “I truly see our group as a tool to create awareness and advocate for change,” she said. “There is power in numbers and I feel we would not have been invited to the meeting with Dr. Arlotto without the support of the AACPC group.”
Mosier said AACPS welcomes the input from community members. “There is no sentiment on the part of the superintendent or anyone else here to do anything but invite feedback and comment, particularly from parents who have children in our system,” he said. “They have information that, where appropriate, can be used to strengthen and enhance [AACPS].”
Sowers still sees work to be done as communication continues between AACPC and AACPS. “There is a definite disconnect between what is supposed to be happening, based on policy, regulations and senior management statements, and what the reality is for our children,” she said, citing such issues as severe bullying, assaults, sexual harassment, skewed data collection, and lack of communication and follow-up with parents as issues she hopes to see addressed in the near future.
Where both parties agree is that they are keeping the best interest of the students at heart. “The most important thing we can create in our school system,” Mosier said, “is a safe and supportive learning environment for every child enrolled here.”