Bullying rates in local schools under-reported

ataylor@bradenton.comMay 12, 2011 

BRADENTON -- A large chasm exists between bullying incidents reported to the state and the number of occurrences that take place on school campuses, according to local and state statistics.

Florida’s Department of Education received 111 bullying incidents for Manatee County during the 2009-10 school year, according to the annual incident report. Manatee County students, however, tell a different story. It is a story detailing a higher rate of bullying, which doesn’t surprise Manatee County Coordinator of Safe Schools Skip Wilholt.

“That’s the very nature of bullying,” Wilholt said. “It’s a clandestine behavior. Only 10 percent (of bullying incidents) have been brought to the attention of adults.”

Manatee school administrators distribute a bullying and safety survey annually, which asks elementary, middle and high school students specific questions. For the 2009-10 school year, more than 3,000 elementary, middle and high school students say they have been bullied at school. Communications Director Tom Butler said the Department of Education relies on accurate reporting by schools and districts of incidents of “crime, violence and disruptive behaviors that occur on school grounds, on school transportation and at off-campus, school-sponsored events.”

“There are a number of reasons why reported numbers may differ including an incident being reported as bullying-related, an incident not rising to the level of being reported and the reporting based on the number of incidents, not the number of students involved,” Butler said.

Wilholt believes Manatee County has more of a handle on finding out about bullying. Students are told where they can anonymously report bullying through the school district’s website. Plus, the district distributes surveys for students. Wilholt said the surveys are essential to get the full picture of what happens in the district.

“I’m not aware of any other districts doing surveys to this degree,” he said. “I trust our numbers. That gives us a great game plan for addressing the problem.”

Without the surveys, administrators at the individual schools would be totally unaware if an environment is ripe for an incident to occur such as what happened with Cape Coral’s Jeffrey Johnston, 15.

Johnston killed himself in 2005 after enduring three years of bullying at school and online. In 2008, the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act was initiated, requiring kindergarten-12th grade schools to report incidences of bullying. The legislation requires school districts to report bullying to receive safe school dollars.

Jeffrey’s mother, Debbie Johnston, believes Florida has the best anti-bullying law in the country.

“The problem is we are not training educators and administrators on how to handle incidents of bullying,” Debbie Johnston said. “You can’t punish kids out of bullying. Tolerance is the key.”

Johnston has been an advocate of bullying awareness and suicide prevention since her son’s death in 2005. She said she hears from parents throughout the world.

Citing national statistics, Johnston said 160,000 students stay home everyday because of bullying.

In the past year, cases of school bullying has captured national attention. There was the 19-year-old Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him during a same-sex encounter.

Earlier this month, two Massachusetts teens were sentenced to a year of probation after harassing a peer who later hanged herself.

“I get dozens of reports,” Wilholt said. “It’s helped us to uncover some situations.”

In Manatee, high schools had far fewer incidents of bullying reported on the surveys. Only 373 of the 1,728 students said they were bullied during the 2009-10 school year. That’s out of about 11,000 students.

In elementary school, 5,366 students were surveyed. About 2,300 said they had been bullied.

In middle school, 3,053 were surveyed.

About 700 said they were bullied in 2009-10.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘Snitches get stitches and may end up in ditches.’ That comes from that (middle and high school) age group,” Johnston said. “Some have walled themselves off so much they don’t report it.”

Johnston believes kids need to be taught character education and tolerance of others. They need social time to interact with each other under the proper supervision, she said.

“We focus so much on the teach and test mentality we tend to lose sight of the fact that being successful isn’t based on test scores,” she said.

The top places for students to be picked on at school remained consistent in the surveys: playground for elementary schoolers; the lunchroom, classroom and hallways for middle and high schoolers. In the Manatee surveys, students admit to being physically hit, teased, excluded by others and threatened.

Wilholt offers advice to parents at www.manateeschools.net/safe/ -- the school district’s anti-bullying website. In it, he says parents should be alert and critical.

To recognize whether your child is a victim of bullying look out for: whether your child comes home with clothing that is torn or in disarray; appears afraid or reluctant to go to school in morning; chooses an “illogical” route for going to and from school and others.

He also offers tips for parents to look out for if their child is acting like a bully.

Some tips to look out for are: whether the child intimidates siblings or kids in the neighborhood; is hot-tempered or has a low-frustration tolerance; or has antisocial or criminal behavior often shown at an early age.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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