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Reports of Bullying in Kentucky's Public Schools Triple in 3 Years

The reported incidents of Kentucky’s public school students accused of bullying, harassing or threatening others has more than tripled since 2012 to 21,015.

The statistic was contained in the preliminary results of a school safety study from the Office of Education Accountability, known as OEA, which was presented on Tuesday to a bipartisan panel of lawmakers exploring ways to make schools safer.

Sen. Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) who co-chaired the panel known as the Education Assessment & Accountability Review Subcommittee, asked about reasons for the dramatic increase.

Preliminary results presented to legislators indicate the increase was caused by schools failing to report bullying, harassing and threatening behavior – as required by law – until last school year in addition to increased reporting requirements.

Other preliminary findings include the following:

In 2012, there were a total of 6,782 bullying, harassment and threatening behavior violations reported. This number more than doubled the following year. By 2014 that number had tripled the 2012 number. The numbers started to plateau this past year only increasing by 908 incidents to 21,015.

In 2012, harassment was almost half of the total violations at 49 percent. The following year all types of school violations examined by the OEA more than doubled with the exception of threatening staff.

Beginning in 2014 a new school violation – threatening another student – began to be specifically tracked. That year there were a little over 1,600 incidents of threatening another student reported, or 8 percent of the total violations for that year. Harassment increased the most in 2014, adding about 2,500 more incidents, accounting for 45 percent of the total incidents that year.

This past school year saw the biggest shift in incident types with threatening another student almost doubling from prior years. That category now represents 19 percent of the total violations. Threatening staff was the only other type of school violation that had an increase last school year. It increased 220 to a little more than 4,000 incidents.

Last school year, a little under 6,500 school violations happened in elementary schools. That’s 32 percent of the total violations that year. Fifty-nine percent of those violations were from bullying.

The violations committed by middle school students account for 49 percent of the total violations and account for a little under 10,000 incidents. At the middle school, harassment was the biggest problem with 4,671 incidents reported.

The least amount of violations occurred in high schools with a little over 4,000 total violations. Harassment carried over as the largest problem in those grades with 1,692 violations, or 42 percent.

Retired educator Rep. Linda Belcher (D-Shepherdsville) said the preliminary findings were concerning.

“We all know if we do not have a safe environment, children do not learn well,” she said. “So if we look at this, it kind of bothers me that we have this much going on in our schools.”

Final results of the study are scheduled to be released in 2016.

Governor Beshear reacts to bullying numbers

Governor Steve Beshear called on lawmakers and Kentucky’s future leaders to adopt new recommendations for schools, public agencies and communities to stop youth bullying.

Among the panel’s recommendations:

  • Adopt one statewide, formal definition of bullying.
  • Adopt evidence-based standards within all school districts to promote a positive climate and culture.
  • Support and invest in behavioral health counselors at the local school level as a preventive measure.
  • Establish and fund a sustainable state-level agency or office that coordinates and supports community-driven efforts to promote bullying prevention and community programs. 

“By studying bullying, and by recommending practices and policies to prevent and respond to it, the panel is empowering students, parents and school and community leaders to root out intimidation and harassment in our communities,” Gov. Beshear said. “I ask the lawmakers who served on this task force and their respective chambers to work with our next Governor, our school districts, community leaders and public health officials to implement these critical recommendations.” 

The task force, a 26-member panel appointed by Gov. Beshear, has been meeting for the past year, hearing from safety experts and discussing potential strategies to address the problem of youth bullying.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) Secretary Audrey Tayse Haynes, who co-chaired the panel with former Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) Terry Holliday, said she is pleased that the task force was able to recommend a layer of prevention strategies.

“We understand that while there is no ‘magic solution’ to ending youth bullying, part of the solution is simply raising awareness,” she said. “Our panel heard many times that adults had no idea about certain bullying incidences until they reached a crisis stage. We need community leaders to keep speaking up about bullying prevention so that it is easier for others – especially young people – to talk about it.” 

Holliday and Haynes wrote to Gov. Beshear last year and urged him to create the task force. Membership on the task force included legislators and school, youth, safety and community officials. The task force also included a middle-school student who experienced bullying when she was younger. Eleven-year-old Morgan Guess – and her mother – participated on the bullying prevention panel.

“It has been an honor for me to serve on this task force and I am grateful to Gov. Beshear for allowing me the opportunity to represent Kentucky students,” said Morgan Guess, of Paducah. “The last year has shown me that there are citizens all across Kentucky who are committed to changing the culture of bullying and given me hope for Kentucky’s future. This is an important start, but we have more to do. I am committed to doing my part. I am counting on your commitment as well. All Kentucky students are.”

Secretary Haynes said the task force learned that the best response to bullying is for communities to act before it occurs.

“Rather than implement measures that merely react to bullying, we have to focus on prevention efforts,” she said. “We need to establish safe and supportive school environments that empower youth to seek success.”

And, Haynes said, the report also emphasizes that bullying is not just a school problem.

“Bullying is not a problem to be addressed solely by school administrators, or even state social workers,” she said. “None of us can be bystanders in this effort. To really thrive, our youth need the right tools and influences to learn to react to disappointment and to have healthy relationships with others. That is going to take a commitment from us all.”

The panel established that bullying is a form of violence and can cause severe physical, social and emotional health problems. The group adapted a four-step approach suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address public health issues.

A recent example of collaboration between KDE and CHFS is the School-Based Behavioral Screening Initiative, launched in early 2014.

The goal of this initiative is to help middle and high school personnel recognize when a student may be showing signs of a behavioral health need. Students may be briefly screened with a validated tool, and based on the identified need, referred for services, supports or further assessment, when appropriate.

“I’m glad we’re addressing this, because it is a major public health issue.  It affects children and families alike, both mentally and physically,” said Rep. Rita Smart, of Richmond. “This report will give us the foundation we need to take the next step in this area, and I look forward to doing whatever else I can to help.”

“For too long, bullying was downplayed as an issue, but it has gotten much more attention in recent years as we gain a better understanding of its long-term impact on those victimized as well as those who are doing the bullying,” said Rep. Derrick Graham, off Frankfort. “If we do not take corrective action when they are young, we risk seeing fixable problems spiraling out of control. I think the findings in this report will give us better tools to take on this task in the years ahead.”

School districts that have implemented this initiative have reported the ability to better plan ahead to help students, to better identify when a student’s behavior might be a symptom of a greater problem, and to meet the needs of their students more responsively.

Learn more about the School-Based Behavioral Health Screening Initiative here.

As part of today’s announcement, Gov. Beshear proclaimed this week as Safe Schools Week in Kentucky, a designation that coincides with the release of the findings of the Kentucky Youth Bullying Prevention Task Force.

-Staff report