Photo courtesy of Montgomery County

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr made a confession recently: he admitted that sometimes he yells at his own three young kids to tell them to stop yelling.

And that’s something that I, as a parent of two adolescent girls, can certainly relate to. But Starr was making a point by confessing: By yelling at his kids, he was, in fact, showing them that it was ok to yell at each other. 

“What you permit is what you promote,” he explained.  And that was one of the most important lessons provided by last Saturday’s symposium to prevent bullying in schools at the Silver Spring Civic Center.

More than 350 people, including MCPS staff and county officials, turned out to listen to a slew of officials representing MCPS, local, state and federal governments and agencies. Two Bethesda high school students, one from Walt Whitman and one from Walter Johnson, also weighed in with their experiences.

Starr hit upon a central theme when it comes to bullying: our kids are likely to model our behavior. And even though we tell students to respect each other and their differences, what do they see outside the classroom? 

“We live in a world where we fear diversity and we think diversities are bad,” said Valerie Ervin, a Montgomery County Council member and the symposium’s moderator. The personal attacks by candidates in the ongoing Republican primaries are a prime example, she said. “This is what we are teaching our children,” she said.

And Johnnie Williams, an internationally known youth advocate, may have put it best when describing the origins of bullying behavior: “That seed grew in a household,” he said. “It transpired and showed itself in a school environment.”

And how about in school? Do students see staff and teachers treating each other well? Are students treated respectfully by teachers and staff, especially if they come to them with a problem?

That hasn’t always been the experience of Ilana Kapit, a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, who says that she found that she didn’t always get the help she needed when she approached staff during her middle school years.

“They’re not being bullied the way you are and they don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve turned to teachers and it doesn’t always work out.”

That means that school culture has to change— bullying can’t eliminated simply by putting on programs. “Just simply putting on a DVD and doing the same thing you do every day isn’t going to eradicate bullying, Starr said.

Students need to know they are valued. And that can be as simple as teachers making sure to say hello to each student entering the classroom. Or checking in with a kid in the hallway, just to take the temperature of how his day is going, according to Starr.

“We must demand from our teachers, our administrators and our counselors that they must check in with our students,” said Tracy Oliver-Gary, an MCPS high school teacher who recently received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There’s no easy way to end bullying. Promoting a school culture that respects kids, training teachers and kids how to make that judgment call between what may be bullying and what may be just playful teasing, promoting good citizenship—these are all important steps to solving the problem.

“Everybody wants to stop bullying right now,” Starr said. But school officials have to figure out “what is the right thing to do in that school community.”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at