Bullying reports: 0 in some districts, 4,000 in another
TAMPA - To Debbie Johnston, whose son killed himself after years of intimidation by a classmate, not one of Florida's 67 school districts can claim kids there aren't being bullied. Yet nine districts have reported zero cases in the two years after Florida's anti-bullying law took effect and required them to document and investigate every complaint. One of those districts, Gilchrist County in North Florida, has only four schools and 2,800 students. Bullying isn't a problem, said school board Chairman Robert Rankin. "If a kid is getting picked on, once we went to the student and told him to stop, 98 percent of the time it stops," he said.At the other end of the scale is the Palm Beach County School District, with about 172,000 students, where nearly 4,000 bullying cases were reported from 2008 to 2010 — many times more than any other district. In between, about half of Florida's districts reported fewer than 10 cases during the two years. Hillsborough County, with about 192,000 students, was ranked in the top five for complaints from 2008-10 — 368 one year and 300 the next. Miami-Dade, with about 345,000 students, saw its numbers jump from seven one year to 802. Such wide variations in reporting raise questions about whether Florida is getting what it asked for with the adoption of Jeffrey's Law, named for Johnston's son. Johnston, a Lee County teacher, said she wants the state to take over bullying investigations or in some way do more to ensure children are safe. "They're playing games with the law and they're playing games with kids' lives." The state Office of Safe Schools still finds value in the process, even if the numbers are off, said Director Brooks Rumenik. Schools are incorporating anti-bullying programs into lesson plans, and administrators, parents and students are talking about the problem more openly. Rumenik blames the reporting inconsistencies, in part, on the variety of ways districts collect data. Hillsborough, for example, added an online reporting system in the fall that gathers even more information than the district wants. In addition, simply defining bullying can be complicated. In Hillsborough, it takes up three pages of the district's "Bullying and Harassment" policy. What's more, Rumenik said, the state didn't help matters when it changed the criteria for reporting and forced districts to do it all over again. Her office, in the state Department of Education, relies on school districts to ensure the findings are accurate, then checks whether school administrators properly document cases and understand the latest legal definitions of bullying. The state also distributes more than $60 million to school districts to help finance the effort. "But useful or not," Rumenik said, "it's a requirement that we report it.'' In the years since her son's death, Johnston advocated for anti-bullying legislation, founding the group Students for Safer Schools and helping win the passage of Jeffrey's Law in 2008. In the fall, the U.S. Department of Education took Jeffrey's law and 44 others like it across the country and added another step. The department's Office for Civil Rights now requires states to identify bullying victims based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability to ensure their rights haven't been violated. "Bullying can be extremely damaging to students, can disrupt an environment conducive to learning and should not be tolerated in our schools," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a December letter to state education departments. The cases also can land school districts in court as more parents turn to litigation. "I think parents are getting desperate," said Craig Goldenfarb, a personal injury lawyer in West Palm Beach who represents two Palm Beach County students in bullying cases. In one case, a child identified as the bullying victim was suspended with the bully because of the district's policy of "zero tolerance," Goldenfarb said. "It's an excuse to have no investigation," he said. "It's lazy." In Hillsborough, where the district confirmed 542 bullying cases during 2010-11, Judith Rainone trains school administrators to recognize and report bullying. "We immediately investigate every complaint," she said. Schools are required to adopt anti-bullying programs and many use a prevention program called Olweus, developed at Clemson University, which teaches children they shouldn't be silent bystanders. Principals and teachers also work with parents to identify problems. Sometimes, the interaction poses reporting challenges. Of the 378 reports received online in 2009-2010, most didn't fit the state's legal definition, which defines bullying as repeated abuse. Instead, the reporting system became a complaint line for all sorts of grievances, from disgruntled students and teachers to parents fighting with each other off campus. Most reporters willingly gave their names and telephone numbers in hopes of being contacted by school officials. School leaders still welcome the tool because it enables them to learn quickly about a host of problems, bullying or otherwise. And parents embraced the opportunity to sound off. For Rainone and other district administrators in charge of sending the reports to the state, the process has become somewhat of a headache. The reports often pass through many hands — teachers, principals and other administrators — before reaching the state. Findings are often subjective. This past year, Hillsborough stepped up staff training and made the online reporting site more interactive. There's a detailed definition of bullying along with several websites offering more information and help. A review by The Tampa Tribune of the 508 online reports filed in 2010-2011 shows many of the reporters took note. In complaints about shoving in the hall, or beatings on the bus, or name calling in the cafeteria, many more parents and students were careful to document multiple occurrences, providing exact dates, times, locations and names of bullies. "On Oct. 22, 2010, I called the school again to inform the administration that my daughter was poked with an ink pen on her back," one parent wrote about an incident at Giunta Middle School. "On Oct. 25, my daughter was jumped." More parents also seem to be aware of new federal requirements. "My son was attacked on his bus today," one woman wrote, noting the boy has cerebral palsy. "He began beating my son up, he knocked his glasses off, and broke them, also punched, slapped and scratched my son in the face." The parent also said her son had told his teacher at Muller Middle about the incidents throughout the school year and nothing was done to stop the bullying. "My question is why?" she asked. "My child should be protected from the second that he enters the bus until he exits the bus." Then she lobbed what has become a common threat: "And if that is not happening then the school system as well as the parents will be held accountable and liable for their negligence." Another parent, whose son had been slapped, stabbed with a pencil, pushed and punched by a McLane Middle classmate named in the report, was more blunt, writing in capital letters: "DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS OR I WILL TAKE LEGAL ACTION AGAINST THIS SCHOOL AND THE SCHOOL BOARD."
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