Data indicates schools are likely underreporting bullying
About halfway through her freshman year of high school, Regan Doperak’s parents pulled her out.
Doperak, now 18, recalled being bullied from elementary school onward. Kids at school in her small, rural town picked on her skin tone, her weight, and made cracks about her mother, who sometimes walks slowly because of back problems and chronic pain.
“I’d always wear leggings or a big baggy shirt,” Doperak said. “That’s because I hated my body, because of the picking on I got at the elementary school. So then they would hence pick on that, being like: ‘What are you depressed or something?’ or ‘I bet she cuts, too.’ ”
Doperak felt like school officials didn’t care. “It was always brushed off as ‘kids being kids,’” she said. So she asked her parents if she could homeschool her. Worried about their daughter’s mental health, they agreed.
Her father, Matt Doperak, said she was miserable. “She used to love going to school,” he said. “She loved to learn. And then it was ‘I can’t wait for Friday.’ Or ‘can I stay home today? I don’t feel good.’ And you knew she was lying.’ ”
The year Doperak left school, the combined middle and high school she attended in Proctor didn’t report a single bullying, harassment, or hazing incident to the state.
But neither did 123 other schools, according to data provided by the Vermont Agency of Education.
Before, the state only released statewide totals for incident counts, which made it impossible to determine how many incidents individual schools were reporting — or if they were reporting at all.
Schools are required each year to report to the agency a count of every incident of bullying, harassment, or hazing school officials investigate. But for four years in a row – spanning from 2012 to 2016 – about a third of the state’s schools reported no incidents.
A spokeswoman for the Agency of Education said the state reaches out to school districts that report few or zero incidents to verify their submissions. But unreliable data about school climate in Vermont isn’t a new problem, and doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
In 2009, a legislative committee tasked with investigating harassment and bullying found that 29 percent of the state’s schools hadn’t reported any incidents of harassment during the 2006-07 school year. (At the time, bullying data was not collected.)
“It strains credulity to believe that more than 1 in 4 Vermont schools were without any complaints of harassment,” the committee wrote at the time.
Of those schools that did report, most did so in very low numbers. Vermont redacts data when an incident count is less than 11. A spreadsheet spanning four years of school-by-school reports — between the 2012-13 and 2015-16 school years — is nearly completely redacted.
But top-line, statewide totals show bullying reports have remained steady.
During the 2012-13 school year, 682 bullying investigations were reported. Four years later, schools reported 652. Harassment investigations, on the other hand, have gone up: Schools only reported 683 during the 2012-13 school year. Four years later, that number climbed to 791.
Meanwhile, there are indications that bullying and harassment in Vermont’s schools is an intractable problem.
In 2015, 24 percent of middle schoolers and 18 percent of high schoolers reported being bullied, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered every two years by the state. Those numbers are roughly in line with what students reported a decade prior, according to previous Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.
Karen Richards, the executive director of the state’s Human Rights Commission, said her agency receives, on average, about 20 calls a year about bullying. The agency can give parents informal advice, but unless their complaints are about harassment – that’s victimization based on membership to a protected class – it can’t go further. If parents aren’t happy with the way a school district has handled a bullying complaint, the end of the line is the superintendent.
“We have heard from too many parents who the school has gone through the investigative process, determined that there was no bullying, but the child is still experiencing it and the parents are kind of at their wit’s end,” Richards said.
Rep. Kathleen Keenan, D-St. Albans, has on several occasions sponsored bills to expand the commission’s jurisdiction to include bullying. And Richards has testified that there’s a clear need for some sort of third-party investigator to arbitrate bullying complaints. But without additional resources, she’s also made it clear her agency can’t take on the additional workload.
Keenan’s bills, meanwhile, have never made it out of committee.
“I don’t think there’s a good clear path for children who’ve been a victim of bullying to get help in the present system that we’ve got,” Keenan said. “And it means that problems are unresolved at the local level, and so the child has to go someplace else.”
Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principal’s Association, said the reporting software the state uses to collect the data is “a little bit problematic.” The system doesn’t easily allow for comments, so administrators will often pick the wrong category of incident and submit a narrative report instead, he said.
How kids interpret the terms bullying and harassment also makes a difference, Nichols said.
“Often times kids will throw around the word bullying or harassment left and right,” Nichols said. “And it may not really be anything that’s bullying or harassment. It may be bad behavior, or inappropriate behavior, or it might be behavior that goes both ways.”
Bullying in Vermont is strictly defined: It’s behavior that’s repeated over time, that occurs during the school day on school property (including the bus), or at a school event, and that is intended to humiliate or intimidate. That means it’s not a one-off act of meanness, or a fight between friends.
Bernice Garnett, an associate professor at the University of Vermont and the chair of the state’s Hazing, Harassment, and Bullying Council, agreed tensions often arise between families and school officials over what to call an incident.
“I think the first major issue, and actually it’s the crux of the issue – is the definition of bullying behaviors,” Garnett said. Kids can use the term much more loosely than its legal definitions. And adults can struggle to gather the necessary facts.
Research suggests best way to deal with bullying isn’t by holding an assembly, Garnett said, but by using social-emotional learning practices to teach kids about healthy relationships, empathy, self-regulation and social awareness. But that takes time, training, and resources – and schools increasingly feel like they have “initiative overload.”
That’s a problem, because bullying affects children and learning in “nearly every way,” Garnett said. Kids who are bullied – and who bully – do worse in school, and have higher rates of depression and anxiety. The long-term effects are only just starting to be seriously studied.
“I think we’re missing the true consequences of these behaviors,” Garnett said. “Whatever you want to call them. But bullying seems to be a term that is over-utilized and under-operationalized in terms of political will and buy-in from a school, that this is something we need to address from a primary prevention (perspective), not just putting out fires.”