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Data shows school districts likely underreporting incidents of bullying

December 19, 2017 GMT

Either Connecticut has cured bullying or the state is vastly underreporting such incidents.

Nationally, one in five students — roughly 20 percent — report being bullied daily in school. In Connecticut, there were just 825 incidents recorded in the 2016-17 school year in a state with more than 538,000 K-12 students.

That means less than 1 percent of Connecticut students have experienced bullying, and individual districts appear to be on par with state trends — a far cry from widely accepted national data.

Stamford, a district with more than 16,000 students, had just 12 incidents of bullying this past year, a decrease from 14 in the 2015-16 academic year. Norwalk, a smaller district of 11,000, had 20. Danbury had so few cases the data was suppressed to protect student privacy, meaning there were less than 6 cases of verified bullying in a district with roughly 11,000 students.

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Michael Fernandes, assistant superintendent for secondary schools in Stamford, said it’s hard to determine whether incidents are unreported, but that they aim to create a safe school climate to prevent bullying.

The number of reported incidents statewide — or lack thereof — could be due to a narrow definition of bullying. While every complaint is investigated, only those determined to fit the definition are reported to the state as verified bullying.

In 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a public act that defines bullying as “the repeated use by one or more students of a written, oral or electronic communication, such as cyber bullying, directed at or referring to another student attending school in the same school district.”

“This means that one incident of misconduct does not constitute bullying,” said Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “By definition, bullying requires the ‘repeated use’ of a ‘written, oral or electronic communication’ directed at another student, or a physical act or gesture ‘repeatedly directed at another student.’”

Stamford Public Schools (SPS) follows this statute, and defines bullying as a repeated act, Fernandes said. If it is not a repeated incident, then it is considered “inappropriate,” he said.

If a student is found to have bullied another student, there are various actions that can be taken, Fernandes said, from educating the student, to giving a warning, to suspension or a police referral if the action is severe enough, though he has never seen an incident reach that point.

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They’ve taken steps to deter bullying, though. In certain middle schools, Fernandes said there are “bully boxes,” where students can drop a report if they are not comfortable going to someone directly.

SPS incorporates a K-12 PeaceWorks program, which partners with local nonprofit organizations to teach lessons around preventing bullying and building positive relationships during students’ health classes. Each school also has a “safe school climate specialist” who oversees bullying education.

“The big takeaway is that we want to continue to build safe school climates and that’s part of our school improvement plans,” Fernandes said. “That’s the most important thing for us to address bullying.”

New avenues for reporting

Norwalk Public Schools School Safety Coordinator Joe Rios said he’s hopeful the rollout of Anonymous Alerts — a new app for students, parents and staff to communicate and anonymously report potential bullying — will provide more insightful data on the types of things being reported and how often investigations turn out not to be bullying.

“If you look nationwide, there are some statistics that show students would have reported things but they weren’t able to do it anonymously,” Rios said. “This gives them that venue for any incident that needs to be reported ... We will certainly be able to gather some data which I hope will be able to detect what we’re missing and how do we use our resources to combat issues.”

Fernandes said that SPS tested the app several years ago, but did not continue to use it because the students were not utilizing it.

“They seem to prefer reporting directly to adults they develop relationships with and trust,” he said.

Greg Bender, CEO and founder of Anonymous Alerts, said he suspects the national bullying rate — 20 percent of students experience bullying — is likely even higher than reported, which is why he created Anonymous Alerts.

“Fifty-four percent of students nationwide do not report being bullied and 88 percent of social media-using teens have witnessed other people being mean or cold on social media networks and sites,” Bender said, citing data from the the U.S. Department of Education. “But they don’t report it. That’s where things can fall into a tragedy situation really quickly. Repeated bullying or sexual harassment can be a very troublesome thing for a young adult. Somebody can do something about it. A lot of things go under the radar, and this will help them both create a safer school climate, both to mitigate risk and create better transparency.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt