The school district’s anti-bullying self-assessment report shows a slight improvement in the district’s handling of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) incidents. In school year 2012-13, the district scored 48 out of 75; in school year 2013-14, the district scored 54 out of 78.
During a presentation before the school board early last week, Theodore “TJ” Best, the district’s anti-bullying coordinator, said the district received 536 total reports of bullying in school year 2013-14 with 270 reports being confirmed bullying incidents and 266 dismissed as unfounded.
“We had a total of 530 incidents out of that 270 were confirmed bullying [incidents] which is about 51-percent of all cases,” said Best. “We’re slightly higher than the state average when it comes to the number of confirmed cases and the number of reported cases.”
He said New Jersey average hovers around 40-percent. Best attributes the large number of incidents to the size of the district’s student body, some 30,000 pupils, compared to puny districts around the Garden State.
Best said the number of reported incidents will climb higher, for not every bullying incident is reported, after Errol Kerr, school board member, asked how comfortable he was with the findings. “I’d not be surprised if, by the end of the year, our number of reported incidences were to double to a thousand,” responded Best.
What’s being done
Kerr also wanted to know what programs are in place to discourage bullying in schools. Best said every school has a different program in place to discourage bullying. Best mentioned a mural painting program in the district citing it as one that improves school climate.
Citing a hallway through which board members must walk pass at least once a month for regular meetings at John F. Kennedy High School, Best said, “If you walk through the hallways of just this school, it’s very conducive to education, it was painted by students, who, in some respects were taking away from that culture and climate.”
“A lot of times students that are involved in the mural painting projects aren’t necessarily the president of the senior class, but sometimes these are students who have demonstrated some other issues,” said Best. “These students were not selected at random.”
Half the school have a program that promotes healthy environment, said Best.
Donnie Evans, state-appointed district superintendent, added there are other programs in place to build school culture. “Some schools [priority schools] have culture leaders,” said Evans, “who are put there to help build a healthy school culture.”
How to report bullying
Another school board member, Corey Teague asked if reporting was being improved. “Is that [reporting] being improved because I’m getting a lot of calls from parents,” said Teague. Best responded saying school staff must accept incident reports from students and parents: it is required by state law.
Best said school staff were trained last September to recognize incidents of bullying.
“If a parent feels a staff members did not address it, they can submit the incident themselves on the district’s website,” said Best. In his presentation on Wednesday Best shared scores for all district schools.
Among Unit I, elementary schools, School 5 received a score of 69; School 7 received a score of 68; and School 10 received a score of 65, according to Best’s presentation. The highest score a school is able to obtain is 78 – the district score is an average of all schools.
Among Unit II, middle schools, Norman S, Weir received a score of 64; School 9 received a score of 65; and School 27 received a score of 58.
Among Unit III, high schools, Star Academy received a score of 71; Eastside High School’s Culinary Arts, Hospitality, and Tourism received a score of 70; and Eastside High School’s School of Information Technology received a score of 69.
What’s the point?
“Other than reporting, what is going to be effect of this process?” asked Jonathan Hodges, school board member. “How does this process help to reduce the overall rate of bullying in the schools?”
Best said every school is required to post their respective grades on their website. “Nobody wants to be seen as a dangerous school that’s not addressing the culture and climate,” said Best.
“It does give principals the perverse incentive to be less than thorough in their data collection,” added Hodges.
Best said schools have an incentive to report incidents. “If you look at the data, you actually get penalized for under reporting,” explained Best. “School 6 had only two reported incidences of bullying.”
One of the two was sustained as a confirmed incident, the other was dismissed. “They received the lowest anti-bullying scores in the district,” said Best. School 5 had the largest number incidents yet it received one of the highest anti-bullying score in the district.
“It’s not the number of incidents that you are reporting. It’s how you’re addressing those incidents. If you don’t have any incidents at a school, you can’t demonstrate how you’re addressing the incidents,” said Best.