Bullying in Delaware’s schools: A report

 

Dover High Associate Principal Tiff McCullough talks with students who work to stop bullying in the school. From left are seniors Jazmyne Stanford, Barry Jones and Paige Rust. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Everyone has a concept of bullying, but definitions may vary. Here’s how the Delaware Department of Education defines it:

Bullying is any intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act or actions against another student, school volunteer or school employee that a reasonable person under the circumstances should know will have the effect of:

• Placing a student, school volunteer or school employee in reasonable fear of substantial harm to his or her emotional or physical well-being or substantial damages to his or her property; or

• Creating a hostile, threatening, humiliating or abusive educational environment due to the pervasiveness or persistence of actions or due to a power differential between the bully and the target; or

• Interfering with a student having a safe school environment that is necessary to facilitate educational performance, opportunities or benefits; or

• Perpetuating bullying by inciting, soliciting or coercing an individual or group to demean, dehumanize, embarrass or cause emotional, psychological or physical harm to another student, school volunteer or school employee.

With this definition in mind, the Department of Education (DOE) requires each school district to report any bullying incidents, whether “alleged” or “substantiated,” to the state within five business days.

The state Department of Education graphic, part of their annual report on Incidents of Bullying in Delaware Public School Districts and Charter Schools, shows the five-year trend. (Submitted graphic)

It also requires districts to report the reason for the bullying incident by tallying it in one of 17 categories that include race, gender, hate crime and peer attention.

The DOE has been collecting that data since the 2011-2012 school year. With the latest report, the state has a five-year picture of bullying as reported by Delaware’s public school districts and charter schools. In 2015-2016, 1,971 incidents of bullying were reported during the school year. Of those alleged incidents, 514 were substantiated to include 629 offenses.

Each year, Delaware schools are audited randomly to evaluate district and charter adherence to bullying prevention law and cyberbullying regulation. For the recent report, 12 schools in the state were audited, and all complied with the requirements with the following four exceptions:

• 77.8 percent reported “alleged” bullying incidents to the DOE within five working days

• 78.3 percent reported “substantiated” bullying incidents to the DOE within five working days

• 91.7 percent included in their bullying prevention policy a requirement to notify the parent, guardian and/or relative caregiver of any target of bullying or person who bullies another

• 77.8 percent reported that parents, guardians, relative caregivers and/or legal guardians were contacted whenever notification was required.

“At the district level, we are seeing some increases and some decreases,” education department spokeswoman Alison May said last week. (The report is available online through the DOE website at http://www.doe.k12.de.us.)

Capital School District Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said the state’s data is as accurate as it can be given the definition of bullying and the perception of parents and students.

Bullying requires an imbalance of power between parties: For example, Dr. Shelton said, if a child calls a classmate a “scaredy-cat” and that child responds and then they go their separate ways, that is not a bullying situation.

But, he said, if name calling continues, or “if you get four girls to all call the student a ‘scaredy-cat,’ that’s different.”

All the incidents that come to the attention of school officials are investigated, he said. But, given the state education definition, incidents may not be substantiated as bullying offenses, but rather offensive touching or inappropriate conduct. Capital had 28 alleged bullying incidents and 15 substantiated as bullying.

Caesar Rodney School District’s Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent Tamara Toles Torain echoed that sentiment. Although the disparity between her district’s number of alleged (103) and substantiated (27) complaints may seem large, she said investigations often shake loose many incidents that can’t really be defined as bullying.

“Sometimes reports are made by parents on a student’s behalf and once you complete an investigation, you may find that the incident was mutual rather than one-sided,” she said.

“Once you get all sides of the story, it is sometimes the case that the report may not have been as clear as it appeared to be at first.”

The DOE report shows statewide that the numbers of alleged bullying incidents are higher than those substantiated.

At Polytech High School in Woodside, principal Ryan Fuller says their procedure for dealing with bullying incidents is to make a report and respond to the situation’s merits.

“Any report from staff, students or parents gets forwarded to an administrator and we conduct an investigation to determine the merits of the case and the circumstances,” he said.

He added that the school reports to DOE as directed. An investigation may include talking to witnesses and examining cell phone or social media evidence.

“We really don’t have a lot of cases,” he said.

According to the 2015-2016 report, which lumps data reported by the state’s six technical schools together, there were 42 substantiated bullying incidents at those high schools, which include Polytech, Sussex Tech, St. Georges, Howard, Hodgson and Delcastle.

As is standard procedure, Ms. May said the DOE “examines the policies, procedures, and practices of districts and charters through random audit as well as those reporting low numbers of incidents (including no reports) of bullying and sudden changes in data.

Patchwork of programs?

In an attempt at bullying prevention, the Delaware Department of Justice is working to develop a series of best practices for schools to adopt.

Attorney General Matt Denn said he is “concerned that there is a patchwork of uncoordinated anti-bullying programs in the state’s hundreds of schools, many which are not based on tested or effective strategies, and our office is starting to put together a model prevention program along with a strategy to encourage the state’s schools to adopt that model prevention program.”

The state is trying a pilot program, the No Bully System, at four schools, Ms. May said. The program stresses prevention and intervention, and trains “key staff to become solution coaches to help resolve incidents of bullying that occur within the school.”

So far, the pilot has been successful at Dover High School, according to Associate Principal Tiff McCullough, who oversees the solution team there. Cape Henlopen School District’s Beacon and Mariner middle schools and Milford’s Milford Central Academy also are participating.

While extensive bullying can affect a school’s climate Ms. May said “most effects are seen at the individual level for the person who is the target of bullying.

“Lower attendance rates and grades as well as increased anxiety are common detrimental effects of bullying.”

Added Ms. May, “Our schools must provide safe environments conducive to learning for students to succeed.”

Tracking cyber bullying

Social media is creating the biggest issue in combating bullying for educators and justice officials.

As educators explained, bullying isn’t the stereotypical behavior of decades ago with bigger kids stealing smaller classmates’ lunch money on the playground.

“Bullying is about girls now,” said Capital’s Dr. Shelton. “It’s girls with names on social media that aren’t their names and they’re posting stuff on people’s pages and they’re being nasty and it’s faceless. I call it faceless because I don’t have to look at you and do it.”

Online rumors can take a viral path that makes it difficult for school leaders to track and discipline.

Mr. McCullough agreed that it’s most often not visible behavior that authorities can step in and stop. Adolescents are behind computers and other devices starting and spreading rumors. He encourages students to take screenshots of potential issues that they see to report them.

In 2012, then-Attorney General Beau Biden and current AG Denn (then lieutenant governor) worked with the General Assembly to enact Senate Bill 193 that mandated that the state Department of Education collaborate with the Delaware Department of Justice to construct a uniform cyberbullying policy, allowing the AG’s office to defend schools on related matters afterward.

Given the “explosion of cyberbullying in schools across our state,” Mr. Biden said at the time that a statewide policy was “a common-sense tool to help schools and law enforcement better protect kids by recognizing the prevalence of online communication, the damaging effect it has on students who are victimized, and the significant disruption it causes to our schools.”

The statewide cyberbullying policy:

• prohibits cyberbullying by students directed at other students and directs districts to treat cyberbullying in the same way they treat bullying incidents;

• defines cyberbullying as electronic communication directed at an identifiable student or group of students that interferes with a student’s physical well-being, is threatening or intimidating, or is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it is likely to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational programs of the school;

• Clarifies that, for the school, the cyberbullying does not need to originate from a school building or involve the use of school equipment.

In 2013, Mr. Denn, then serving as lieutenant governor, worked with Mr. Biden and the General Assembly to create Senate Bill 268 requiring schools to provide more information about bullying incidents they dealt with.

AG Denn said he believes data compiled since then is beneficial.

“The best source of information about what type of bullying is happening can be gleaned from the annual report that the state is required to issue about bullying, which summarizes these statistics,” he said.

The Delaware Department of Justice receives bullying reports criminal in nature from law enforcement and is pushing for parents to become more involved. When parents are notified of bullying reports involving their child, according to state law, schools are required to provide the DOJ hotline number, 800-220-5414.

The AG’s office said the hotline on average receives about five calls per week during the school year.

“The cases that DOJ sees are atypical, in that they are either cases where parents are dissatisfied with the way that the school is handling the case, or cases where the bullying is so serious that it has been reported as a criminal offense,” AG Denn said.

AG Denn said he’s still concerned about the frequency of “cyberbullying, and the targeting of specific vulnerable populations of students (including those with disabilities and LGBT students) as bullying victims.”

DOJ Family Division prosecutors are assigned bullying cases that reach criminal offenses status.

The DOJ school ombudsman handles hotline calls and AG Denn said he’s “personally notified by the family division director on a weekly basis about each call to the bullying hotline and how it is being handled by the ombudsman, given that this issue is such a high priority.”

AG Denn maintains that a student is greatly affected by his or her life at home and believes parents should be “more involved in bullying prevention, because many of our kids’ values about tolerance and kindness are shaped at home rather than at school.”

The DOJ hopes to continue pushing schools to take bullying more seriously, according to AG Denn, and give “schools the legal tools they needed to address the relatively new phenomenon of cyberbullying.

“We are hopeful that the model prevention program we are working on will further these efforts.”

Questions about accuracy

Kevin Ohlandt, an outspoken Dover parent of a disabled child, calls into question the findings of the 2015-2016 annual report.

“I don’t trust a lot of these numbers,” he said. “I don’t believe many of our schools are actually reporting everything to the DOE. Nor do I believe a lot of the substantiated numbers. I will give a margin of error for students filing false claims or parents overreacting, but not that big of a margin.”

Mr. Ohlandt unsuccessfully ran for Capital School District Board of Education earlier this year, runs the Exceptional Delaware blog and participates in a stakeholders group mandated by the federal government to help form a plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. He said on top of not having a well-established “mechanism” in Delaware to ensure that all schools report incidents in the same way, he also feels that many reports don’t make it to documentation.

“It’s all over the map, there is no consistency to how the schools are reporting,” he said. “One school might view offensive touching as just that while another sees it as bullying. I know for a fact, because I hear it from teachers all the time, that some administrations know about incidents but blow them off so their numbers don’t look bad.”

“I actually had that happen with my child when he attended Capitol School District,” said Mr. Ohlandt, who now homeschools his son for reasons related to bullying. “When parents get hold of their student’s eSchool reports and see that a bullying report where their child was a victim should be on there but it’s not — it’s a big problem.”

Recently in his stakeholder discussion group, which has met five times, the topic on the agenda was bullying and the consensus was that more counselors and mentors would go a long way toward helping the problem.

“There needs to be more wraparound services and more counselors in our schools,” he said, noting that the counselor-to-student ratio should be much smaller. “More mentors in school for those kids who come to school through trauma would also be very helpful — someone they can look up to for guidance and support.”

Regardless of any new strategies rolled out for schools to combat bullying issues, Mr. Ohlandt feels that streamlining and ensuring accuracy in the reporting and recording of bullying incidents should be the first priority.

“For all the anti-bullying campaigns in schools, if we can’t get accuracy in the reporting of it, we won’t be able to eradicate bullying unless we truly understand what is going on,” he said.

“No school is doing anyone any favors by not reporting what is actually happening. If teachers continue to be ignored by administrators over bullying reporting, that is something legislation should take care of as soon as possible.”

School leaders interviewed said they are handling every incident as outlined in the state code, and encouraged parents and students to report incidents.

Caesar Rodney’s Mr. Torain said, “An alleged bullying incident will be reported to the DOE within five business days. Then we investigate the claim as soon as possible and if it’s substantiated, we report that up and follow up on the case.”

Each school in the district has its own design for what that follow-up looks like and it also depends on the severity of the case, but at a minimum there is a conference with parents and the students involved, Ms. Torain said.

Policies in practice

In addition to the state’s No Bully pilot program, a number of programs are in place to promote a positive school climate and anti-bullying philosophies, from anonymous boxes where students can submit problems to roundtable discussions to diffuse contention. Capital and Caesar Rodney use “The Leader in Me” curriculum to teach good habits to elementary school students.

Ms. Torain said Postlethwait Middle School had significant success with an effort called the “Care, Kindness and Respect” program. “They were able to reduce suspensions by 75 percent using that Care, Kindness and Respect model,” she said. The district also uses “Responsive Classroom”, “PBIS” (Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports) and the “Compassionate Schools” initiative.

At Capital, secondary schools are using restorative practices that encourage students to be accountable to their behavior and discuss it with peers and teachers. For instance, Dr. Shelton said if a child had an outburst in a classroom, when they returned to class, the teacher and students would sit in a circle and talk about why it happened and how others were affected.

Mr. Fuller credits Polytech’s “low” bullying rates to staff training, counselors, school culture and proactive measures.

“I really have to give credit to our five counselors, they are on the front lines,” he said. “We don’t have the numbers that other schools do because we have a really solid school culture as well and a lot of the activities we do support students and stem those things.”

Although the counselors are broken up into specialized tasks, each has a caseload of roughly 240 students, said Mr. Fuller.

Ms. Torain also points to counselors as the most successful deterrent to bullying in the district. All schools in the district have one or more counselors with the exception of McIlvaine Early Childhood Center, which houses the district’s kindergarten students.

“Counselors are the adults in the building students feel most comfortable talking to, so they bring in bullying reports, but can also help mediate a conflict that hasn’t yet come to the point of bullying,” she said. “The number of counselors at each school are determined by school administration and costs per teacher unit.”

At Polytech, teachers and counselors interface with students through their town hall forums and special PASS (Polytech Advisory Support System) meetings that are held several times per year and increase the level of communication between parents, students and staff.

Mr. Fuller said the 30-minute PASS session is an instruction/discussion meeting held by the administration to cover important school policies in a small group setting. The sessions on Dec. 8 dealt with school dress code and bullying policy. Mr. Fuller himself worked with a small group of students and instructed from a PowerPoint.

The presentation covered types of bullying, the definition of bullying, consequences, the distinction of threatening bullying, hateful speech, the importance to reporting incidents and race, gender identity, sexual orientation and religious discrimination.

He told students, “In October 2016, the United States District Court affirmed that schools are permitted to punish students for off-campus statements made on social media if those statements cause a disruption.”

After the presentation, students were encouraged to discuss among themselves with the onus on making recommendations and voicing concerns.

Students brought up the idea of posting a bully box where they could have the opportunity to fill out a form and make an anonymous report about bullying.

When asked why students would find a bully box useful rather than just reporting incidents in person to administrators, several said that other students would think they were “snitches” for filing a complaint.

Dover High School has “Stop Bullying” boxes to gather anonymous complaints at various locations on its campus, including the main office and the cafeteria.

Mr. McCullough said the boxes allow students to submit concerns or tips anonymously.

Students also can use their cell phones to send issues to the high school administration and post them online through the school’s website.

CR’s Ms. Torain said most schools in her district have bully boxes located in the counselor’s offices, main office and sometimes nurse’s office. She noted that students use them frequently, echoing concerns about student’s feeling like “snitches”.

“It’s unfortunate, but there is a culture in society today as a whole and among a lot of young people that if you make a complaint you’re a tattletale or snitch,” she said. “We do our best to encourage students to be open and honest about what goes on, but the most important thing is that we show them is that if they bring something to our attention, we’ll act on it.”

After PASS meetings, Mr. Fuller initiates a call home that informs parents of policy changes — he also loads the Power Point and other pertinent information into a “parent portal” on the school’s website.

He said that reaching out to students and parents and keeping an open line of communication helps feed the school’s culture and address issues like bullying.

“I’ll be bringing the idea of a bully box to our next building leadership meeting — it’s a great idea,” he said. “I’ll have our carpentry department make a box and we’ll mount it.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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