DES MOINES | School officials recorded about 1,000 more incidents of student bullying in the 2011-12 school year than the year before.
But the data released by the Iowa Department of Education show instances of bullying are 10 times less than what would be expected based on national surveys.
The latest reports come out as incidents of bullying and its effects have grabbed headlines in the state and across the country, leading to a renewed effort from politicians and school advocates to better address the issue.
Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a statewide anti-bullying summit this fall, promising “we can do more” to stop bullying in, and perhaps out of, school. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, held a forum in June where he promised more federal dollars for anti-bullying efforts, and a bipartisan group of Iowa House members pledged to pick up new anti-bullying legislation when the 85th General Assembly convenes in January.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Education will roll out a new reporting system this fall that, officials say, should give the state a more accurate reading of bullying in schools.
“The system we use now needs a lot of work,” said Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, a group that responds to issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination faced by Iowa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning student population.
Monson works with school districts and area education agencies to help train staff about the Iowa anti-bullying law. He said lack of communication is the biggest problem he encounters, be it from the principal to the staff, the superintendent to the buildings or the district to the state.
“The other (reason) is there is still a mentality of ‘boys will be boys’ out there,” Monson said. “I’ve heard instances of parents going to a principal and the principal saying, ‘That it isn’t bullying.’ That’s not what is supposed to happen. There at least needs to be an investigation.”
Iowa’s anti-bullying law was hailed as one of the best in the country when it passed the General Assembly in 2007. It required school administrators to track and categorize instances of bullying. Categories are key, supporters say, because it allows school officials to see if they have a particular problem in one area.
The 2011-12 data shows that school districts reported 10,797 incidents of student bullying in the past school year. It’s the first time that number has crossed five figures since the law took effect for the 2008-09 academic year.
But even if each incident involves a separate student, that means only 2.2 percent of the student body has been bullied. That figure flies in the face of most published surveys and reports on bullying, some which say as many as a third of the students are bullied and as many as three-fourths of the student body are either bullied or witness bullying.
A federal Government Accountability Office report released in June, for example, cited four nationwide surveys taken between 2005 and 2009 that reported that 20 percent to 28 percent of students report being bullied during a school year.
The Iowa Department of Education report records 1,065 incidents of bullying for “real or perceived sexual orientation,” which represents the lowest that total has been since the 2008-09 school year when officials reported 868 incidents.
Amy Williamson, administrative consultant for data and monitoring with the Department of Education, said she expects the numbers to go up across the board as the state rolls out its new system.
“The program is going to make the process more uniform across the state,” Williamson said. “Instead of reporting once a year, the data will be updated on a continual basis.”
A new system
The new reporting system has been under development for a year. Administrators can fill out a report with a couple of mouse clicks and a few key strokes.
Williamson said the new forms eliminate much of the discretion school administrators have on whether to report an incident because they require a record of all bullying reports, even if the specific incident doesn’t rise to the level of violating state statute. That’s the discretion that Monson blames, in part, for the low numbers.
“It is important that schools receive adequate training to accompany this new system, as well, rather than simply being frog-marched through compliance procedures,” Williamson said.
Just as the system is put to use in schools, the governor will convene his summit and, soon enough, lawmakers will return to the Statehouse.
One of the topics in both forums will be the growing concern among advocates about social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter that give bullies new avenues to harass their victims.
Electronic bullying is prohibited by current statute, but the question of how a far a school’s authority should reach into the out-of-school lives of its students isn’t really addressed.
“You do get into a privacy issue there,” said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay rights advocacy group. “It is a hard question, and I don’t know if anybody has a good answer for that one right now.”
Family members of Kenneth Weishuhn, a Primghar, Iowa, teen who committed suicide in April, have said he was harassed online after telling people at school he was gay.
Monson said he’s glad the conversation is taking place.
“It used to be that people just lived in fear; they didn’t talk about being bullied, or they just quietly open-enrolled to another district,” he said. “It’s an exciting time now, because people are talking about it. Once you kind of opened the box, it was out there.”