INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) -- Bullying is a hot topic in schools. With a new law passed last session, schools now have to tell parents what exactly is going on. However, that law has not eliminated confusion about the number of bullying incidents reported to the state.
The main sticking point seems to be in the definition of bullying. It's quite long, but there are some key points parents and administrators need to be aware of.
The old notion of "kids being kids" and "sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is just not enough anymore. School officials are getting more involved in reports of bullying.
“Bullying identification, prevention and intervention is a huge part of that training our school safety specialists,” said David Woodward, the Indiana Department of Education’s Director of the Division of School Building, Physical Safety, and Security.
State law mandates schools collect and report the number of bullying incidents. That information goes to the Department of Education and it's posted online.
I-Team 8 examined the numbers reported. For the 2017-2018 school year, 46 percent of schools across the state reported zero bullying incidents. 84 percent reported five instances or fewer.
Parents of bullying victims I-Team 8 spoke with do not feel those numbers are accurate. In Danielle Green's case, she said a lack of response to bullying lead to the absolute worst possible outcome.
“She had told me, 'please get justice, it's bullying what's killed me,’” Green said her daughter Angel wrote in a suicide note.
Green's eighth grade daughter, Angel, killed herself in 2013. The Tippecanoe County Sheriff's Office denies Angel was bullied while attending Battle Ground Middle School - despite what her suicide note said.
“I've never seen a child write to the entire eighth grade, begging them that ‘once you've hurt me don’t hurt others’ and ‘I hope you can see what you've done here and not do it to somebody else,’” said Green.
Shaad Buss is on the front lines in the fight against bullying in the Tippecanoe School Corporation. He was principal at East Tipp Middle School when Angel died.
“The state has set out some standards for that that we need to go by, so that's the definition that we use, and I don’t think parents fully understand that definition,” said Buss.
There are three major things that lead Buss and his staff to classify something as bullying: an overt act that is also repeated where the power balance shifts toward one student over the other.
“Ninety-nine percent of all the reports we get are just peer conflict, kids not getting along, and generally speaking, it's a back-and-forth,” Buss aid. “A lot of our reports from parents, they're usually not aware that there's a back-and-forth going on between the situation, so that balance of power has not been shifted because it is a back-and-forth.”
While Buss says his district's bullying numbers are accurate, he admits he does not think all the incidents are reported.
David Woodward and the Department of Education admit that it's tough to determine what counts as bullying, even with a state definition and legal standard.
“Now it’s one student said something possibly derogatory on social media, and then another student responds, maybe physically or back on social media,” said Woodward. “Sometimes by the time it gets to an educator, it’s about six layers deep. So the bullying definition, although it may be clear, how it comes into the administrator's eyes is rarely, rarely clear.”
Woodward said their state bullying numbers are lower than the national average, and they are going to continue training on identifying bullying and intervening early.
As for Green, she is going to continue to fight for the kids still experiencing bullying and for her Angel.
“She knew that I would do something and she left me with the strength to do it,” said Green. “So with what strength I do have, I keep moving forward for her.”
The state department of education is also doing an audit of districts' bullying numbers and reports.
I-Team 8 got three big pieces of advice from the head of school safety for the Department of Education:
- Read the specific bullying code for your district
- Bug school officials, if you have to
- Talk to your kids about what's going on
Bullying policies for district we mentioned: