Does Idaho have a bullying problem?

Photo courtesy of IdahoEdNews.org

Photo courtesy of IdahoEdNews.org

By Devin Bodkin, IdahoEdNews.org

How often are Idaho students bullied?

It’s hard to tell, at least from a numbers standpoint.

The State Department of Education’s latest bullying data show reported incidents in public schools climbed from 3,162 in 2015-2016 to 3,578 in 2016-2017. Despite the 13 percent increase, the latest number still represents less than 2 percent of Idaho’s roughly 300,000 students.

The latest state data also show just 33 students have been charged with harassment, intimidation or bullying violations since 2015.

Some school administrators attribute the low numbers to safe schools. But 25 percent of Idaho students polled in the SDE’s 2017 Idaho Youth Risk Survey said they have been bullied.

Expert Katie Bubak-Azevedo said difficulties tracking and reporting bullying incidents, as well as students’ propensities to hide their actions from adults, lend credence more to the 2017 survey than to the state’s administrative data.

“Kids don’t often trust adults. They want to hide it,” said Bubak-Azevedo, director of Boise State University’s Idaho Positive Behavior Network.

The SDE’s latest numbers also represent only the second batch of data collected under Idaho’s 2015 anti-bullying law, which requires administrators to track and report bullying incidents as defined by the state.

Bubak-Azevedo said the uptick from 2015-16 to 2016-17 is likely the result of improved identification and reporting procedures tied to the law.

In today’s climate of school safety, the SDE has ramped up its efforts to help educators identify and report bullying. Though this does not mean every instance is either seen or reported, SDE director of student engagement Matt McCarter pointed to some notable changes partly resulting from the 2015 law.

  • More on-site training at schools across the state.
  • Annual statewide training for more than 700 Idaho educators.
  • A common definition of what constitutes bullying.
  • Uniform reporting criteria and procedures for districts.

But there’s still a lot of ground to cover to reach a true statewide indicator, Bubak-Azevedo said.

“We’re going to see more of what we pay attention to,” she said, but added, “I would guess the actual number of bullying incidents is still much higher than 2 percent (of the student population).”

Still, the 2016-17 data provide a rough comparison between the number of reported incidents and student populations. With 26,175 students, the Boise School District tallied the highest number of reported instances in 2016-2017, at 529. The Nampa School District came in at No. 2, with 297 recorded incidents among its 14,342 students.

The state’s other large districts likewise reported bullying rates representing around 2 percent or less of their enrollments, a trend that mirrors the 2015-16 numbers.

  • Caldwell (6,338 students): 132 incidents.
  • Vallivue (8,446 students): 143 incidents.
  • Coeur d’Alene (10,700 students): 144 incidents.
  • West Ada (38,097 students): 67 incidents.
  • Twin Falls (9,194 students): 50 incidents.
  • Bonneville (12,224 students): 42 incidents.
  • Lewiston (4,748 students): 29 incidents.

Some school leaders attribute their extremely low bullying numbers to preventive techniques. The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, Idaho’s fourth largest with 12,434 students, reported only five bullying incidents in 2016-17.

Pocatello-Chubbuck director of student support services Kent Hobbs said the district’s “continuum of violence” framework and training encourages educators to identify and intervene in conflicts before they escalate into either physical altercations or more “classic” bullying incidents. Under the training model, educators learn to identify and quash conflicts in the verbal stage, Hobbs said, before they escalate.

Hobbs also believes “there are very few purely classic issues of bullying” as defined in an SDE document used by districts to track bullying incidents. He pointed to a part of the definition, which defines bullying as “repeated hurtful acts, words, or other behavior.”

If educators can catch such acts the first time, they don’t need to be reported, at least based on the repetitious nature of the SDE’s own definition, Hobbs said.

“I think we do a pretty good job of preventing it. We are careful to make sure that we are clear on the definition,” Hobbs said.

Bubak-Azevedo said some districts’ low numbers could result from reporting apprehension.

“How are some districts going to report to the SDE that they had 300 incidents when a district of comparable size reported only five?” she said.

Though some educators insist they are keeping bullies at bay, the 2017 student survey paints a grimmer picture, and has captured the attention of State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

The 2017 survey’s one-in-four figure encouraged Ybarra to “declare war” on bullying in Idaho, and to commit to ramping up the SDE’s anti-bullying public service announcements.

“My vision is to grow this public service announcement into a larger, multi-year statewide effort similar to the successful campaign to reduce teen tobacco use. It was effective. Let’s replicate what works and declare a ‘war on bullying in Idaho,’” she told Idaho Ed News in October.

This story was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on April 5, 2018.