There Are Better Ways to Stop it
Florida has strong anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies, but many parents, teachers and students say bullying remains a serious problem in Florida schools. A scientific public opinion poll conducted by American Children’s Campaign showed bullying was a top concern of citizens.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 21 of every 100 kids ages 12 – 18 are bullied at school. One in ten students cite repeated bullying as the reason they drop out. Yet Florida public schools report a bullying rate of only 0.1 percent, with roughly two out of every three public schools reporting ZERO cases!
This number is so startlingly low as compared to national reports that it raises many red flags.
Protection of Children Requires a Full Recognition of the Problem
Without an accurate benchmark, how can progress of what works and doesn’t work in addressing the bullying problem be tracked? Equally concerning is Florida’s private schools have no current mandate to even report instances of bullying.
Part of the disconnect between parents’ perceptions and Florida’s low bullying stats appears to be one of definition. Parents tend to define bullying as “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger or more powerful” as many dictionaries do. However, this definition is problematic as it may include one-time or irregular youthful misbehavior that truly isn’t bullying. That’s why the Florida Department of Education defines bullying as “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress.”
Putting the differences in definitions aside, with the majority of Florida public schools reporting zero instances of bullying, more work is clearly needed to collect more accurate bullying numbers in our state and to provide interventions.
Policies are a Necessary Foundation but not Enough
Currently, Florida reports bullying through school records of incidents rather than through student surveys — which is why accurate recording of these incidents is vitally important. A review of district anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies shows detailed procedures for the principal or designee to receive, screen out and investigate incidents of bullying, as well as for referring victims and perpetrators for counseling, and documenting incidents in Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) system. Policies do vary by school district on whether they will allow online and anonymous reports.
But do these policies actually work at the school level? Intervening factors include (1) the severe shortage of school guidance counselors; (2) the lack of training in mental health issues by school administrators or designees; and (3) a natural tendency not to engage a multi-layered reporting process however well intended.
“Bullying policies, carefully-crafted definitions and formal reporting mechanisms don’t keep a child safe. Our actions do,” said Roy Miller, president of American Children’s Campaign.
The stakes to report reliable bullying numbers and to address bullying effectively is high.
Interventions More Effective Than Criminalization
Bullying has negative effects not just for the victims, but for everyone. Many childhood bullies act out in response to trauma or mental health issues. A bully is six times more likely to be incarcerated by age 24. Victims report long-term problems such as destructive thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety, depression and suicidal behaviors. Children who witness bullying also suffer negative effects.
Counseling decreases the likelihood of mental health adversities and improve the school climate. When counseling is offered the likelihood of mental health adversities decrease for both the victim and the bully.
“Florida students have more access to school law enforcement than social workers, counselors or psychologists”, said Miller. According to 2016 data from the Florida Association of School Psychologists, there is an average of one school psychologist for every 1,983 students in the state. The nationally recommended ratio is 500 to 700 students per psychologist.
Florida already leads the nation in school-based arrests, referring students to law enforcement at a 30 percent higher rate than the national average. By categorizing bullying behaviors as crimes, Florida schools initiate the introduction of children to the correctional system, decreasing the likelihood of graduation and increasing the likelihood of future incarcerations. A concern exists that the recent ramp up of school resource officers in response to the Parkland tragedy will result in further criminalizing bullying rather than non-punitive interventions.
Better Ways to Address Bullying
- Invest in counselors for Florida’s schools: Bullies and victims need access to appropriate counseling services to reduce negative impacts and to uncover core reasons for bullying behavior. Florida’s current student-to-counselor ratio is woefully inadequate, with a 300 percent increase in counselors needed just to bring the state in line with nationally recommended standards for public schools.
- Expand the ways in which Florida accepts and reviews bullying reports. Currently the Department of Education allows for written and oral reporting but access to anonymous reporting differs across school districts. Online reporting needs to be available in all districts and the ability to take and review anonymous reporting needs to be increased.
- Private schools should report instances of bullying to the Department of Education. Private schools are not under the oversight of DOE, but do report on attendance and other health-related information. Reporting instances of bullying in private schools will help identify the full scope of the problem facing the state and ensure practices keep victims safe when they transfer to private schools.
- Prioritize evidence-based prevention over reactive policies: To fully stop bullying, the culture of schools needs to change so it is no longer acceptable by students and teachers. Schools need resources to implement effective bullying prevention programs.
- Hold bullies accountable but do not criminalize youthful behavior and disagreements: Pre-arrest diversion programs are successful for first-time offenders. Graduated sanctions can be applied if the pattern continues.
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This Top Story is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Kristen Combs.