More than a year after a Howard County teen committed suicide following months of online harassment, county officials unveiled a program Wednesday meant to discourage bullying via computer and in person.
"We know we need bold steps to really, truly take on this issue," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said. "We need a full community solution."
The effort — which could start in the fall if the County Council approves a funding request of $250,000 —would use a mobile application called Sprigeo, an online reporting system that's already in use in about 20 school systems around the country, as a way to make it easier for witnesses to report bullying.
Reports would go to a person at a public library, school or recreation center who has been designated to gather the information, said Elizabeth Edsall Kromm, a policy director in Ulman's office. They would be used to understand the nature and extent of bullying in the county and to try to prevent repeated incidents and.
Officials said the app will always be free to users, and the county will not be charged for it in the first year.
Ulman said there will also be a public awareness effort modeled on the county's "Choose Civility" campaign. He said the program will enlist community and religious organizations to help change attitudes about bullying.
He said the county has been working on a broad effort since the death of Grace McComas, the 15-year-old from Glenelg who committed suicide last spring.
Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected Thursday to sign "Grace's Law," which will make repeated online harassment a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or jail sentence.
Daniel Webster, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, said research has shown "what an enormous public health problem bullying is for young people."
He said research indicates youngsters can suffer enduring emotional damage, including symptoms of anxiety, depression and increased risk for violence and, in extreme cases, higher risk of suicide.
Webster said the pattern of repeated harassment distinguishes potentially destructive bullying from the sort of teasing, name-calling and fighting that's often considered a common experience in growing up.
"It's not simply one time," he said. "It's a repeated pattern. Someone is targeted."
He acknowledged that officials face the burden of showing how this potentially destructive behavior is different from isolated episodes.
"That will be a challenge in a public education standpoint," said Webster.
The point, he said, is to "reduce the tolerance for it. …Howard County wants to say, 'it's really not cool to be a bully.'"
It's possible that message has gotten through to some extent, considering results of a survey taken in March by the Voices for Change Youth Coalition, a group of county youngsters and adults. Member Collin Sullivan, 16, a sophomore at Long Reach High School, said the survey of 168 county students found 98 percent had experienced or seen bullying going on, but not one admitted doing it.
Emem Akpan, 14, a student at Lime Kiln Middle School, said she's been subjected to name-calling and being shut out of classmates' social circles since she was in elementary school. She said she came to the point of considering suicide more than a year ago, but has found strength through religion. She said the harassment continues to this day.
"People still say terrible things to me, but it's not effective," said Akpan. Sometimes, she said, "I felt like the world was ganging up on me."
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