The chasm between different findings in a state study and a report on bullying in schools raises concerns of potential under-reporting of such incidents and the message that sends to victims, says Jason Goodman, executive director of The Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition.
A 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs and Commission on Crime and Delinquency says more than 5,000 Cumberland County students should have experienced bullying in school last year.
However, only 20 incidents of bullying were reported countywide to the Department of Education during the 2012-13 school year.
“For whatever reason school districts are not reporting incidents of bullying,” says Goodman, who heads the coalition representing LGBTQ organizations statewide. “This is a major problem in remedying the problem (of bullying) is districts are not acknowledging this is going on ... if they are ignoring it on paper, they are largely ignoring it in person.”
Public school districts are required to submit yearly reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools detailing every incident on an array of issues ranging from violence, drug and alcohol use and sexual assault that occur on school grounds. The reports are strictly for fact-finding and do not affect the district’s educational funding.
Local districts have discretion on what incidents they report. Michael Kozup, director of the safe schools office, says districts are only required to report incidents they deem valid after it conducts an investigation.
Local law enforcement is required to sign off on the report, verifying any incident that required police presence, and superintendents can be fined up to $2,500 for falsifying records. Kozup admitted, though, that his office has few resources to examine the veracity of the number of bullying claims.
Asked whether his office is able to audit or verify bullying claims, Kozup said, “What you’re asking, would I love to do that? Sure, I would love to do that, but I’m just not financially capable of doing that.”
Kozup said his office is staffed by only four employees and has yearly operating budget of roughly $2.5 million — 0.02 percent of the Department of Education’s yearly $11.5 billion budget.
Kozup said one of the first things he did when the office was founded about three years ago was to hire bullying prevention consultant, Mary Dolan.
Regarding discrepancies in reports of bullying, Kozup said districts may be placing incidents in other categories that may be bullying.
“What may start as a bullying incident could turn into a fight and the district enters it in as a fight,” Kozup said. “You have to look at all the incidents.”
Each type of incident is reported to the Department of Education in separate categories ranging from bullying, simple assault and possession of cigarettes to rape, sexual assault and stalking.
Nearly one quarter of Cumberland County’s 20,000 middle school and high schoolers reported being bullied sometime during 2013, according the Pennsylvania Youth Survey. However, only 300 incidents fell into categories that could be mistaken for bullying and just 20 incidents were reported specifically in the bullying category during the 2012-13 school year, far short of the state survey.
“A lot of kids may be bullied but they don’t report it,” Kozup said. “Because they don’t feel comfortable reporting it ... they settle it on their own ... that happens a lot within the state.”
Goodman says one of the main reasons students don’t report bullying is that they feel it won’t be taken seriously by school officials, something he said needs to change.
Goodman and his group are vocal supporters of House Bill 156, better known as the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act.
The bill would require all teachers to undergo a bullying prevention training program every five years and would implement an improved and automated system for reporting acts of bullying to the state, according to Rep. Dan Truitt, R-West Chester, who introduced the legislation.
Nearly half of the House of Representatives, more than 100 members, have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.
“This bill is very important,” Truitt, a member of the House Education Committee, said in a news release. “Bullying not only causes very real, lasting physical and emotional trauma to its victims, but it also is one of the primary reasons behind incidents of gun violence in schools. This is one effective step we could take to enhance school safety and prevent gun and other types of violence in the classroom.”
The bill was introduced for a second time in January 2013, but has languished in the house’s education committee. It has yet to be brought up for a vote even though a majority of the education committee members are co-sponsors on the bill.
“One challenge no student should have to endure is being the target of bullying,” House Education Committee chairman Paul Clymer, R-Perkasie, said during a 2012 hearing on bullying in schools. “Our public schools should be a place where children can learn in a safe and nurturing environment. We as legislators need to do all that we can to make sure that type of environment is supported.”
Clymer has not called for a vote on any of the 15 anti-bullying bills referred to his committee in the past four years.
Goodman said there have been concerns raised under the guise that the bill could potentially quash free speech because it provides bullying protection for all students regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or identity. Goodman said these concerns are unfounded and the bill expressly protects First Amendment rights of students.
“We are very close to having this on the forefront of the legislative agenda,” Goodman said, claiming the bill had overwhelming support but was being held up by one or two legislators. “We have the votes to pass it. We have more than enough votes to pass it.”
Goodman did not name either of the legislators he felt were impeding the bill, and Clymer could not be reached for comment.
Jesse Gantt, founder and CEO of The Foundation for Hope, says bullying caused him to feel isolated, driving him into a deep depression that led to him attempting suicide nine times between the ages of 12 and 22.
“Bullying in school was really bad,” Gantt said. “It was relentless. If felt like something I could never get away from. In high school, I felt like I was going to be bullied the rest of my life. The unrelenting bullying led me into a severe depression.”
Gantt said his personal experience caused him create The Foundation for Hope to provide resources and help for children and families dealing with bullying, depression and suicide.
He said bullying has increased with the advent of new technologies like text messaging and social media.
“Bullying is a little different than what most of us remember from school,” Gantt said. “Bullying is now online. It’s through phones and social media ... it’s very hard to get away from bullying. It can reach anywhere at any time.”
Dolan, the safe schools bullying consultant, said there is a misconception in the understanding of bullying. One of the defining factors of bullying is that it is continued harassment over time, something Dolan said is only fixed with a change in school culture.
She said the state is currently working on an anti-bullying initiative that is based on more than 10 years worth of data.
Dolan advised families seeking more information on bullying to log on to www.stopbullying.gov or download the KnowBullying app for Apple and Android devices. These resources were created by the federal government and provide information on preventing bullying, how to talk to children about bullying and best practices for dealing with bullying.