A new requirement that schools report bullying incidents to the state is collecting new data, but what those numbers mean isn’t yet clear, school officials said.
Schools are required to report incidences of bullying, which is then tracked in a public statewide database. But what numbers are reported is up to each school, and local school officials said what counts as bullying is up for debate.
The numbers for each school district really aren’t comparable, school officials said. For example, Flatrock-Hawcreek Schools in Bartholomew County has an enrollment of 863 students, and reported 48 incidences of bullying. While Hamilton Southeastern Schools reported three incidences of bullying and has an enrollment of 21,367.
Educating schools about what should be reported has been a key part of getting this initiative going, said David Woodward, Indiana Department of Education director of school safety. And now, as schools continue to report data, the state will use it to develop a more focused and responsive curriculum for school safety training across the state, he said.
And state officials want to stress that they want to follow the data over a period of time, rather than drawing any immediate conclusions or assumptions about what may have caused the numbers to be different for different schools, Woodward said.
“We want to wait and see how it trends over time,” Woodward said.
Across Johnson County, school districts reported anywhere from three to 14 bullying incidents, according to the state data.
At Clark-Pleasant schools, which reported four incidences of bullying, each reported case has to be substantiated, meaning the student has also been disciplined, such as with a suspension, assistant superintendent Cameron Rains said.
And for an incident to be bullying, under the state’s definition, it must be repeated acts, which is an issue school counselors typically sort through, Rains said.
But not all schools are the same, and some measure incidents differently, he said.
“It’s a matter of how do schools interpret that, and what threshold does it get reported,” Rains said.
The state has a set definition of bullying, requiring unwanted, repeated acts that can be verbal, written or physical by one student or group of students against another student or group of students.
But when reporting incidences, which fall into four categories of physical, verbal, social/relational and electronic or written communication, whether an incident is bullying can be up to interpretation, Greenwood Schools Superintendent Kent DeKoninck said.
“When you’re talking about situations like this, it always can be easily interpreted in many different ways,” DeKoninck said.
That is often a discussion school officials have with parents, who are concerned their child is being bullied, he said. The term bullying has become well-known, but not every instance is actually bullying, he said.
School officials could look at various situations, and all could be categorized differently. The intent of the law is good, to protect children, but using the data to draw any conclusions or make decisions isn’t a good idea, since it can vary so much, he said.
Franklin Schools Superintendent David Clendening said he thinks the numbers can also be a good indication of the measures schools are taking to address bullying. At Franklin schools, which had three reported incidents of bullying, Clendening credits the numbers being lower than other school districts in central Indiana to an early focus on addressing bullying issues.
Counselors and teachers talk with students from a young age about being a good citizen and responding appropriately in different situations, along with educating them about issues such as cyber bullying as they get older, he said.
“I do think we are really stressing it is an issue, so how can we address it,” he said.
School officials said they will continue educating students about bullying and how to respond to different situations.
At Clark-Pleasant, school officials also will continue to evaluate and discuss what incidents they report as bullying to the state, Rains said.
But what’s most important is that they are dealing with issues as they come up in the schools, he said.
“Are we taking care of behavior issues and actual issues of bullying? As long as that is the case and as long as we are doing right by our kids, that is what matters,” Rains said.
Woodward said the data can also be used to start important discussions about bullying and how schools are dealing with the issue.
“Those conversations are really important to have,” he said.