School bullying on rise in Indiana, stats show; experts offer solutions

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The 2022 Indiana Schools Bullying, Safety Staffing and Arrests Report shows that bullying has increased in all forms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Indiana Department of Education offers recommendations and resources for parents and school officials regarding the prevention and reporting of bullying and cyberbullying incidents.

Of the reported incident, 38% were classified as verbal and 32% were classified as physical. Here’s the breakdown on other types: social/relational, 11%; combination of incidents, 10%; and written/online, 9%.

Physical bullying incidents for 2022 were reported at 1,616, compared to 565 reported in 2021 and 1,399 in 2020.

Verbal bullying incidents for 2022 were reported at 1,952, compared to 788 in 2021 and 1,618 in 2020.

Social/relational bullying incidents for 2022 were reported at 543, compared to 182 in 2021 and 417 in 2020.

Written/online bullying incidents for 2022 were reported at 437, compared to 219 in 2021 and 372 in 2020.

A “combination of incidents” for 2022 were reported at 519, compared to 230 in 2021 and 689 in 2020.

Although numbers increased in the past two years, the figures are still lower across the board compared to numbers reported before the pandemic.

Over at the Marion County Commission on Youth, Sarah Kumfer reviewed the report and worries that, although numbers seem to be getting better than the last few years, the report might not reflect every incident.

Kumber is the public policy and advocacy director for the nonprofit commission. It offers trainings for other professionals, including youth service providers who work with teens and kids. “Some schools might not report as accurately as others or have different definitions of what bullying looks like. Also, you never know how many students who experience bullying report it to their teachers or school administrators,” Kumfer said.

She wants to look at how teachers and schools can be more supported where the majority of bullying happens. She suggests funding to focus on the issue so that more concrete solutions for anti-bullying.

“A few years ago actually with my predecessor worked closely with lawmakers to be able to pass the law that would require schools to report how many bullying incidents take place each year,” Kumfer said.

Allison Luthe is the executive director at the Martin Luther King Community Center, 40 W. 40th St. She’s been looking at youth gun violence and mass incarceration as a part of the school-to-prison pipeline. What stood out to her in the Indiana report is the number of arrests of students from school grounds. There were 1,291 arrests for 2021-2022. Overall, 68% of those arrested were male, with the youngest being 8 years old.

The report shows that 14-year-olds were the highest age of students who were arrested for in 2021, at 288.

As a part of her study, Luthe held a roundtable with youths to discuss their experiences in school. “What they told us is that the schools usually know when bullying is taking place. They know about the events that lead up to students being disciplined, or maybe suspended, expelled or arrested, and they came up with seven overarching recommendations.”

Those recommendations:

  • Reshape and transform the school climate and invest in student supports, prevention, and early intervention, including the use of community resources.
  • Adequately regulate law enforcement in schools with clear guidelines; require training and accountability for student resources officers (what school districts call their police officers); and reduce school police responses by limiting their involvement in disciplinary matters and creating alternatives to arrests.
  • Use alternative approaches for school discipline and arrests, and prefer diversion programs (a pretrial method to remedy behavior that led to an arrest) over justice system involvement.
  • Invest in crisis response teams in schools and the community.
  • Establish a youth and families division in an Indianapolis law enforcement agency that is charged with building relationships of trust and respect with youths and developing an extensive continuum of developmentally appropriate alternatives to arrest and prosecution.
  • Systemically value youth voices and experiences in reform efforts, Including through advisory opportunities and the continued development of local youth commissions.
  • Reform laws and gaps in public policy that drive young people into Indiana’s justice system, and delineate in state law a minimum age of at least 12 years old for prosecution and detention.

Luthe said, “If you invest in people who are trauma-trained and really want to meet kids where they are and problem-solve, then we can solve those problems and impact their quality of life, all the while reducing bullying and making schools a safer place.”

She said resources need to be invested in the right places.

LifeSmart Youth is a nonprofit that provides evidence-based and informed, school-based education for youth across Indiana. The nonprofit has training sessions for anti-bullying, violence prevention, harassment, and the benefits and challenges of using digital communication to engage with peers.

The nonprofit helps students to develop skills for reporting dangerous relationships, bullying and violence, says Tammie Carter, LifeSmart Youth’s chief executive officer.

Carter said in a statement by email to News 8, “After reviewing the data, I am not surprised that the numbers jumped up after students returned to the classroom following the pandemic. While these number tell a story of improvement, these numbers do not reflect the rise in bullying and violence in all forms aimed at students who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or questioning.”

She said verbal and written harassment often escalate to physical acts of violence when they are not reported and dealt with. 

Carter said schools must continue to review their bullying policies and procedures, and to implement them to prevent and respond to incidents of bullying. In her emailed statement, Carter added, “Parents and the community often do not receive bullying reports. In fact, in most years, Indiana does not have enough school participating in the CDC’s (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) Youth Risk Behavior Survey for us to receive the report on our high schools. I encourage every Indiana high school to participate in the 2022 survey so that we have timely data on which to design education and intervention.”

Carter also wrote, “Indiana is ranked third highest in the nation for the percentage of high school students who reported dating violence. The newly released Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows some shocking results: 37% of female youth and 18% of male youth reported someone they were dating or going out with purposely tried to control them or emotionally hurt them. These numbers are even higher for youth of color and LGBTQIA+ youth.”

She said, in today’s school environment, more K-12 students are on the receiving end of bullying due to the multiple methods that bullies have available to them. The rise in technology and social media available in addition to the vast cultural diversity amongst today’s students.

Carter said Hoosiers must be transparent about gathering and reporting data. In addition, schools must create a culture of prevention through strong policies, putting into practice intervention education, consequences for perpetrators, as well as care and protection of victims of bullying and violence.

LifeSmart Youth’s chief executive officer wrote, “It’s important to note that the effects of bullying do not stop in middle or high school.  Victims of bullying often go on to be bullied as adults who suffer, anxiety, mental, and physical trauma. Additionally, research shows that adolescent perpetrators of bullying become adults who bully and commit other types of violent crimes.”