Severna Park High School (SPHS) and Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) are taking steps aimed at creating a safer and more welcoming environment in schools.
The measures follow on the heels of a video that was made public last month of a student at Severna Park bullying a special needs student with threatening, obscene and racist language in the high school’s cafeteria. A subsequent video of the perpetrator shows the teenager running through the woods shouting racial hate speech.
“That’s not who we are,” said SPHS Principal Lindsay Abruzzo. “I will not tolerate it moving forward.”
Abruzzo said she fielded phone calls from around the world in the following days as the video went viral.
The original video was taken during lunch on January 4, according to an investigation. On January 10, the video was airdropped to students at Severna Park High School. Shortly after, students and staff members formed a line at the main office to report the incident. School officials said the bullying was reported to appropriate agencies and offices, including the police.
According to a 2022 legislative report to the Maryland General Assembly on bullying, harassment or intimidation in Maryland Public Schools, 496 bullying incidents were reported during the 2020-21 school year, which was partly virtual due to the pandemic, in the state’s public schools. Anne Arundel County had 88 reported incidents in that timeframe — the most of any county in the state. The school year prior, Anne Arundel County fielded the third most bullying reports in the state with 717.
In response to the video, AACPS Superintendent Mark Bedell led a community conversation centered around acceptance and inclusion during late January at SPHS.
During the event, Abruzzo informed the crowd that the perpetrator in the video is no longer a student at the school.
Bedell stressed acceptance, accessibility and sense of belonging during his remarks while noting that he was meeting with the police chief the following day to address hate issues in the county.
“The perception is the reality,” Bedell said.
To that point, County Executive Steuart Pittman noted that Anne Arundel County had the highest number of hate bias reports in Maryland during his first year in office. As of 2021, Anne Arundel was No. 4 behind Montgomery, Baltimore and Howard counties, according to the Maryland Department of State Police report.
During the break-out discussions that occurred at the high school, several parents expressed that Severna Park neighborhoods are tight-knit to a fault. A trait that some say bleeds over into the schools.
“There’s a lot of exclusion based on the neighborhood you live in,” said one participant.
Severna Park senior Jayna Monroe said she aims to foster diversity and inclusion with social justice as part of the school’s equity club.
“The people that need it the most weren’t going to be here,” Monroe said following the event.
Other residents shared their beliefs that unity days at county schools don’t offer much substance beyond wearing orange shirts, bullying issues are ignored by school administrators, kids are segregated at lunch and the school system should provide more service opportunities that empower kids to help people of different backgrounds. One attendee opined that one-on-one meetings with a school counselor should be mandatory for students, and several people suggested faculty and student government should have a more diverse makeup.
Some Severna Park High School students at the meeting said communication at their school must improve for meaningful change to occur.
“I didn’t know I could just walk into the counselor’s office without an appointment until I was an upperclassman,” said senior Elliot Gerig, who serves as the school’s Student Government Association ambassador.
Gerig added that information doesn’t always filter down to the student body, which causes compartmentalization of information that could benefit everyone.
“We need to come together,” Gerig said.
Following the county-led acceptance and inclusion event at SPHS, Abruzzo held open discussion assemblies with each graduating class on campus. The school is also planning lessons for students focusing on bullying, what to do and how to combat it.
SPHS senior Cort Zaniker believes the school is doing the best it can, while noting that it’s clear the adults care deeply about the students and one another.
“I think that Mrs. Abruzzo’s assembly was important,” Zaniker said. “Ignoring a problem will never make it go away. It's very hard to stop bullying as a whole, but I do believe the action the school has already taken has made a positive impact in the school's environment. It's good to know, at least, that the school is trying their best to make a positive impact.”
Tim Swann coaches unified tennis at Northeast High School. He has two grown children — one who attended Old Mill High School and one who attended Chesapeake High School — and does not believe the problems are new.
“It’s a societal issue,” he said. “It’s not just one kid at Severna Park.”
According to PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, one out of every five students in the U.S. report being bullied, but only 46% of bullied students report notifying an adult at their school.
SPHS junior Trish Wallace said she thinks her school is handling the aftermath as good as can be expected.
“[I’m] proud of everyone who actually went to the administrators about the issue,” Wallace said. “I feel like the bullying at this school could be helped since there are a lot of people getting bullied without anyone knowing about it unless it's something as bad as what happened a few weeks ago."
Severna Park High School senior Aidan Judge noted that he spent a lot of time interacting with special needs students during elementary school, but his tenure as a Falcon has been different.
“I can’t think of a single time I’ve interacted with a special needs student at our school,” Judge said.
Judge shared the pride he felt in Severna Park watching Parijita Bastola’s recent run on national television with NBC’s “The Voice” and how that pride changed as the recent video circulated around the world. He also recounted a swim meet last month, where he serves as team captain, that occurred soon after his school started making headlines for the wrong reason.
“It’s clear what you’re associated with,” Judge said. “How was I supposed to show school spirit?”
Monroe noted that students at her school each have their own clusters and it makes it hard to truly get to know a lot of their peers.
While many of the seniors at the discussion said they were pleased the video was released to bring attention to bullying, they also echoed a sentiment shared by Bedell during his remarks.
“What about the things that aren’t on video?” Judge said.
Zaniker said he thinks schools should be more open about mental health and the effect that harmful actions to others can create. He said the sensitivity of the subject presents challenges to truly educate people about mental health.
“I believe bullying is perceived exactly as it should be at SPHS — inhumane and wrong on every account,” Zaniker said. “If you asked anyone at the school, you would get a similar answer. I think the problem lies with a lack of empathy. We all know bullying is horrible and hurtful, but some people aren’t thinking or don’t care about the effects their words have on others.”
Gerig said the school’s SGA and student body are a resilient group as he listed initiatives that students and faculty are spearheading in the face of the recent adversity.
One such initiative is a Vans shoe design contest where Abruzzo, known for sporting the iconic brand of kicks, will accept student-submitted sneaker designs until March 1. Each design must show anti-bullying on them in any way. A pair of Vans will be made with the winning design — one for the principal and one for the student designer. Others include a random acts of kindness day on February 17, painting kindness rocks and more spirit days. The school is also hoping to attract motivational speaker David Flood back to SPHS this year.
“I’m still proud to be a Severna Park Falcon,” Gerig said.
Zach Sparks and Sarah Sternhagen contributed to this story.