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Officials grapple with bullying and fighting in Baltimore County schools


Baltimore County’s public schools are seeing an increase in students bullying each other, and teachers and administrators are getting caught in the crosshairs.

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

“It never used to be this way,” Burke said.

She said it used to be 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, in trying to break up the fight, ended up getting hurt and having to spend some time out of school.”

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

“I know a principal who had a serious back injury from intervening,” Burke said.

Christian Thomas, a senior at Eastern Technical High School, is the student member on the school board. He said when he visits schools and talks to students he hears the same thing.

Thomas said, “I always ask students, what is one thing that you would do to change your school if you could. And almost always the answer has been, ‘I would make it feel safer’ or ‘I would stop with the fighting and the bullying.’”

While the school system could not provide data on the rate of bullying and fighting, School Superintendent Darryl Williams confirmed it in an interview.

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

So what’s going on here?

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

“There’s definitely not enough of us,” teacher Maureen Burke said. “There’s too many of them and not enough of us in terms of being able to meet their needs.”

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

“I’m pleased that we’re getting closer and closer to that 250 student ratio to counselor,” Williams said.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski agreed with Williams’ request for the 33 counselors and put it in his proposed budget that is being considered by the County Council.

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

Then there is the concern that the worst students are not getting appropriately punished.

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

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

School system spokesman Charles Herndon would not confirm the suspension, saying they are prohibited from disclosing disciplinary action.

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

Billy Burke, with CASE, said data shows that minorities and special ed students are disproportionately kicked out. So state law makes it tougher for all students to get lengthy suspensions and expulsions.

Burke said, “I think there’s probably some solution in how we expand alternative schools. I think there’s some solution in how we expand the opportunities for online learning.”

Superintendent Williams said they are taking steps. In addition to the new counselors, many of the county’s schools will be getting student safety assistants.

“To be the first group to interface with kids who may be having difficulties like de-escalating a situation, a potential fight,” Williams said.

There also will be four new floater positions for the school resource officers program. Those 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 in which the schools and the central office are working collaboratively to address.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2