Officials grapple with bullying and fights at Baltimore County schools

Baltimore County Public Schools is seeing an increase in students bullying one another, and teachers and administrators are being caught in the crosshairs.

Maureen Burke, who taught Spanish at Dulaney High School for 24 years, said fights broke out regularly. Recently, there were three in one day.

“It was never like this,” Burke said.

She said it was more like a handful of fights a year. Burke said two teachers tried to intervene to break up a fight in March. Both were injured.

“So it wasn’t that these two students were attacking these two teachers,” Burke said. “It’s just that unfortunately these two teachers, trying to break up the fight, ended up getting injured and had to spend time away from school.”

Billy Burke, the executive director of the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees (CASE), which represents managers and administrators, said he knew an assistant manager whose hand was broken trying to break up a fight and other administrators who were injured.

“I know of a director who seriously injured his back while intervening,” Burke said.

Christian Thomas, a senior at Eastern Technical High School, is the student council member. He said that when he visited schools and spoke to students, he heard the same thing.

Thomas said: “I always ask students, what is one thing you would do to change your school if you could. And almost always the response was, “I’ll make it feel safer” or “I’ll stop the fighting and the bullying.”

Although the school system could not provide data on the rate of bullying and fighting, school superintendent Darryl Williams confirmed this in an interview.

“Unfortunately, as I talk to my colleagues across the state, in many other systems outside of the state, there’s this increase in behaviors,” Williams said.

So what’s going on here?

County school officials, wondering what to do about the violence, describe a perfect storm. There is bullying and fighting for all on social media. Students lost important connections with each other and with adults when school buildings were closed for COVID-19. There are more lost ties: educators leaving the profession and the school system scrambling to fill hundreds of vacancies.

“There are definitely not enough of us,” said teacher Maureen Burke. “There are too many and not enough to meet their needs.

For example, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to each school counselor. Superintendent Williams said the ratio in the county is around 300 to 330 students per councillor. Williams expects to get 33 additional councilors in the county’s budget this coming fiscal year.

“I’m glad we’re getting closer and closer to that 250 student-to-advisor ratio,” Williams said.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski accepted Williams’ request for the 33 councilors and included it in his proposed budget that is currently being considered by the county council.

In a statement, Olszewski said, “Now more than ever, as we emerge from the pandemic, counseling professionals are essential to ensuring the emotional well-being of our children.”

Then there is the fear that the worst students will not be punished appropriately.

At a recent school board meeting, Cynthia Koenig said her child, who attends Perry Hall Middle School, was attacked on a school bus. She said the perpetrator received a two-day suspension.

“A two-day suspension for violently stomping my child’s head on the floor of the bus resulting in a large bloody laceration to the head and a concussion,” Koenig told the board.

School system spokesman Charles Herndon did not confirm the suspension, saying they were prohibited from disclosing disciplinary actions.

“There was a belief that we weren’t offering consequences,” Superintendent Williams said. “We follow our code of conduct. Students will be suspended or receive consequences based on an infraction.

CASE’s Billy Burke said data shows minorities and special education students are disproportionately expelled. So, state law makes it harder for all students to get lengthy suspensions and expulsions.

Burke said, “I think there’s probably a solution in how we’re developing alternative schools. I think there is a solution in how we expand online learning opportunities.

Superintendent Williams said they are taking action. In addition to the new counselors, many county schools will receive student safety assistants.

“Being the first group to interact with kids who may be having difficulty like defusing a situation, a potential fight,” Williams said.

There will also be four new floating positions for the School Resource Officer program. These officers will respond to schools where trouble is brewing.

“These incidents do not reflect the 111,000 students who are in our buildings, coming to our buildings every day, on time and doing what they need to do,” Williams said. “But there are these exceptions where the schools and the central office are working together to fix it.”

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