Putting Education Reform To The Test

Explaining Why It’s Hard To Know Whether Bullying Is A Growing Problem In Florida Schools

annavann / Flickr

Is bullying on the rise? Depends on who you ask.

Ask students how often they’re bullied at school and you’re likely to get a different answer than if you look at official Florida statistics.

Florida schools reported one bullying case for every 423 students during the 2010-2011 school year — or less than one-quarter of one percent of students — according to Florida Department of Education data.

Florida schools have several criteria that harassment must meet before it qualifies as bullying. For schools to consider harassment bullying there must:

1) Be an imbalance of power in the relationship or a perceived imbalance of power.

2) Be an intent to cause harm or distress.

And 3) Be repeated over time.

As StateImpact Florida’s Sarah Gonzalez reported last week, that means it’s likely that a classmate can pick on a student several times before a school officially reports it as bullying.

Nine county school districts reported no bullying last year. Flagler County schools, with nearly 13,000 students, was the largest district to report no bullying cases.

The rate ranges from one case for every 68 students in Gadsden County schools to one case for every 4,769 students in Duval County schools, in school districts which reported bullying.

But other sources of bullying data paint a very different picture of schools.

Thirty-two percent of students age 12 to 18 reported they were bullied on school grounds according to 2007 federal data. A survey by a company that produces anti-bullying curriculum found 17 percent of students said they were bullied.

A Brevard County schools student survey found nearly 10,000 of the district’s 61,500 students have let online contact with friends affect their school work.

Just 4 percent of students reported they ever felt threatened on campus – and that rate was a third of what students reported in 1995 – according to another federal data set.

All of these examples show just how hard it is to place a figure on how prevalent bullying is in schools.

Is it getting worse, aided by social media and ubiquitous cell phones, tablet computers and Internet access? Or are kids safer at school than ever, and schools, parents and the media are paying more attention to the most dangerous or egregious cases?

It’s an issue our colleagues in Ohio found during their recent series on bullying. When they highlighted one data point, advocates would point to another example leading to an opposite conclusion.

Florida has a detailed policy which outlines what qualifies as bullying. Schools districts said they follow state policy.

However, similar school districts reported very different rates of bullying. Duval County schools and  Palm Beach County schools are both urban districts among the largest in the U.S.

But Palm Beach County schools reported seventy times the number of bullying cases than Duval County schools, according to state data.

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Austin Beaucage, 16, at his home in Key Largo, Fla. He doesn't want to go back to school after the summer because he says there is too much school bullying.

When we tried to determine whether bullying is more or less prevalent now, we found that Florida had changed the way it counted cases. Bullying and harassment used to be counted together in a single category. Now bullying and harassment are counted separately.

We also found errors in the Florida data – making it even more difficult to draw any conclusions.

So how serious a problem is bullying in Florida schools? We’re still not sure. We’ll tell you a few stories this week that demonstrate the point.


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