Experts say bullying in Virginia schools is difficult to measure

November 9, 2013

By Ted Keefe

In another era, bullying was considered a part of childhood, a rite of passage. In recent years, however, a rise in schoolyard violence and an increase in adolescent suicides have caused parents, educators and the government to recognize that bullying is a serious issue worth addressing.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, 1 in every 217 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Virginia experienced bullying in 2011-2012. That was better than the previous year, when the rate was 1 in every 205 students.

The figures are contained in VDOE’s annual “Climate Report,” which shows the number of incidents that occur in each school district. Districts must record and report data on 130 types of incidents, ranging from insubordination and drug possession to theft and cellphone possession.

VDOE defines bullying as “repeated negative behaviors intended to cause harm. These may include, but are not limited to, verbal or written threats or physical harm.”

Other incident categories appear to be similar in definition, including harassment and threats. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it’s important for VDOE to be as specific as possible.

“Bullying falls under the umbrella of harassment, but it is different than sexual harassment or racial harassment. Therefore, it needs to be reported that way,” she said.

Jim Henderson, assistant superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, agreed.

“Bullying has to do with power and involves a series of incidents that have taken place over time,” Henderson said.

“If we considered every threat, fight, argument or case of harassment between students, we’d have a very narrow view of what’s happening in the schools. It would make it seem that there was more bullying going on then there really is.”

Dewey Cornell, professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and an expert on school climate and youth violence, believes that the VDOE underreports the amount of bullying taking place.

Cornell and a team of researchers recently published their own climate report on Virginia’s middle schools.

“We found that 13 percent of students in seventh and eighth grade say they are bullied or teased weekly,” Cornell said.

Other researchers also have found that bullying is common. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, estimates that 1 in 5 students is a victim of bullying.

Henderson agrees that bullying may be more prevalent than the VDOE report shows. But he says surveys like Cornell’s and the CDC’s can’t investigate situations the way school counselors and administrators can.

“When surveyed about bullying, students are provided with a definition which may cause them to respond in a subjective way,” Henderson said.

“Counselors and administrators need to further investigate charges of bullying: Talk to students involved, look at the school code of conduct and use our experience to judge if it’s true bullying or something else.”

One thing that Shakeshaft, Henderson, Cornell and the VDOE report all agree on is that bullying rates can’t be predicted by district size, geographic placement or economic standing.

“Bullying happens everywhere regardless of geography, wealth or how many kids are in a school,” Shakeshaft said.

For example, the Bristol school district, which has VDOE’s highest rate of bullying at 1 in 27 students, is not far from Floyd County, which reported no incidents of bullying in the 2011-2012 school year.

Similarly, Fairfax County, the state’s largest district and one of the wealthiest, has a bullying rate around 1 in every 350 students. Harrisonburg, one of Virginia’s poorest districts, and Covington, one of the smallest districts, have similar bullying rates at around 1 in every 325 students.

Shakeshaft, Henderson and Cornell all said that the best way to reduce bullying is to encourage students to speak up and tell parents, teachers and administrators about bullying.

“There used to be a schoolyard rule not to say anything,” Henderson said. “But it seems students are starting to get better at protecting their peers by speaking up.”

Here is the data used in the report. The data is also available as a Google spreadsheet and as a webpage.