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Bullying in county school system studied

According to the state’s first Bullying and Harassment Compliance Report, almost 5,500 cases of bullying were confirmed during the 2012-13 school year, with 48 occurring in Washington County.
Jim Murphy, director of attendance and discipline for the county school system, said bullying on any level interferes with a student’s ability to learn.
“We have the age-old tradition of boys bullying other boys, by shoving, for example,” he said. “But catching up and not far behind are girls bullying other girls by calling them names and making them feel bad.”
Murphy said bullying among boys in the system typically starts in middle school, while bullying between girls can begin in the fifth and sixth grades.
Not all bullying occurs on campus. “Facebook is a nightmare for schools,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of cyber-bullying now, just this year we are recording instances.”
He cited a recent incident where a student set up an account in another student’s name and used it to make derogatory comments about classmates.
According to Murphy, the county’s experience with cyber-bullying on Facebook started in the high schools, drifted down to the seventh and eighth grades, and now can be seen as early as the fifth and sixth grades.
“This is not done at school, and the only way we can address and deal with it is when the repercussions come into the school and cause disruptiveness,” he said.
Disciplinary action occurs at the school level, with principals having the authority to assign a student to in-school suspension and/or detention, or up to 10 days out-of-school suspension.
“We have a civil rights log in every school, and the incidences have to be recorded,” Murphy said.
The principal is responsible for conducting an investigation to determine if the bullying is valid.
“We have to be very careful because in some cases, it turns out the report is actually made by the bully,” he said.
The system’s bullying policy outlines the process to follow when a bullying case that does not involve physical harm occurs.
The first step is to notify the parents, and the school principal has the authority to suspend the student for up to 10 days.
“We don’t truly have out-of-school suspension,” Murphy said.
“If students in grades seven through 12 receive a suspension away from their school, they are automatically transferred to the alternative school.”
Federal law grants parents the right to speak with the chairman of the Student Disciplinary Hearing Committee. Should the parents request a formal hearing, a three-member committee will review the incident.
Continued bad behavior can result in a student’s remaining at the alternative school until graduation.
“We have seen a marked improvement in both high schools since the (permanent placement) program was instituted,” Murphy said.
“There is less temptation for disruptive behavior because they want to return to their home schools.”
Murphy also credits the EPIC program with setting an example for proper behavior.
The goal of the systemwide program is to encourage in students a mutual respect and understanding for others, while developing the courage to withstand the pressure of intimidation.
“There are a lot of high quality professionals out there every day working to make the learning environment pleasant and productive,” he said. “Our whole focus is seeing students through to graduation and watching them cross that stage.”