DES MOINES - Four years after lawmakers approved a sweeping anti-bullying law, school officials across the state appear to be underreporting or flat-out ignoring student harassment in their hallways.
Iowa's anti-bullying and harassment policy was hailed as one of the best in the country when it was passed in 2007, as it not only defined what bullying was, but also required schools to track, report and give a reason for any infraction of the policy.
Going by the three years of data collected so far - from the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years - it would appear that, on average, less than 2 percent of the state's schoolchildren ever are bullied, a figure that flies in the face of most national studies.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Education report released last month stated that 31.7 percent of all students ages 12-18 nationwide said they were bullied at school. Kimberly Greder, an associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University, adds that some student self-reported studies have claimed that as many as 75 percent of all schoolchildren have faced bullying.
"The low numbers you have here, that are unbelievably low, really, we can't stand behind those," Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass said after a review of Iowa's figures. "Clearly, we have more work to do in trying to improve understanding on what bullying is."
Glass is likewise skeptical of studies that report extremely high percentages of student bullying. He said studies can be skewed by how questions are framed and terms are defined.
"I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle," he said.
According to Iowa's law, bullying is any "electronic, written, verbal or physical act or conduct toward a student" based on real or perceived characteristics of that student, which makes the student feel unsafe, creates a hostile school environment or makes them feel unable to participate in a school program.
It's a good definition for 2007, said Iowa Safe Schools Director Nate Monson. His nonprofit organization helped craft the legislative language back then.
"At the time, Iowa was one of 10 states in the country that had an anti-bullying law, and it was one of the best of them," Monson said.
Since then, he said, 36 or 37 other states have adopted anti-bullying policies. Some include provisions he'd like Iowa to adopt, such as the Colorado law, which provides financial incentives for creative ways to combat bullying, or the program in New Jersey, which requires courses in recognizing bullying as part of the training for a teacher's certificate.
"We've been reviewing (Iowa's) numbers and are getting ready to release a report with some suggested changes (to the law)," he said. "I think right now there are some hurdles to collecting data."
Douglas Gentile, a psychologist at Iowa State University who studies family development, said there are a few reasons why bullying is underreported.
"One, we don't even perceive it as something wrong, or we see it as a right of passage," he said. "These attitudes started to change with the school shootings in the '90s, and we say it is not normal that people get bullied, it is not OK."
Looking at data
The Iowa Department of Education divides the state into nine Area Education Agencies, and Glass said each has a person whose job it is to make sure the school districts in their area understand and enforce the anti-bullying law.
"The critical, underlying issue with the reporting of bullying data is it comes down to a human judgment decision," he said. "So you have some person trying to figure out, is this bullying in the light of what's in the law or not?"
And that judgment is often in the eye of the beholder.
Tami Haught's experience in the Nashua-Plainfield School District, about 180 miles northwest of the Quad-Cities, is a case in point. Her son, Adrian, became a target of students in the 640-student district after he told on a classmate who brought liquor to school.
Haught said her son was called all sorts of names and even chased with an air pistol. Classmates sent nasty messages to his Facebook account. She complained to school officials. When she didn't get the satisfaction she wanted, Haught took it to the school board. She was persistent and got on some people's nerves.
Here's part of an e-mail from Nashua-Plainfield school board President Brian Bierschenk to Haught:
"We do not need your scathing emails to this board and administration about how little we are doing!!!! WE ARE WORKING ON IT!! Do you understand? As far as the cyberbullying, I would equate this to passing around notes in school back before there was (F)acebook. ... Even if the princip(als) hold an assembly and tell the kids not to cyberbully, you really think they are all going to, magically, not do it any more. Please, be a little more realistic than that."
Bierschenk says since that email was written, he has changed his mind. "I didn't appreciate cyberbullying and the effects it can have," he said. He'd like to see more training on recognizing and preventing bullying for employees and elected officials like himself.
Bullying, he said, "is an issue that pops up every once in a while. It's a hard one to get a handle on, because each incident is different. You're dealing with different people and situations."
Haught pulled Adrian out of the district in December and enrolled him in the Waverly-Shell Rock School District. She said it's a daily 80-mile round trip from her rural home, but it's worth it, and her son plans to attend high school in Waverly-Shell Rock this fall.
In the 2009-10 school year, Nashua-Plainfield officials reported six bullying incidents districtwide, meaning less than 1 percent of the student body was affected. That same year, Waverly-Shell Rock, a district with 1,847 students, reported 15 incidents - a rate, also, of less than 1 percent.
Walking the halls
Carla Ridgely-Turner has counseled children who are at risk of failing classes, dropping out or otherwise ruining their chances of graduating on time from the state's largest school district for the past 12 years.
In 2009-10, the Des Moines Independent School District had 29,689 students, 14,000 more than third-place Davenport School District at 15,618 students.
"You don't see it every day, but you do see it," said Ridgely-Turner, who works at Merrill Middle School on the far west side of Des Moines. She said the state's effort and national attention on bullying in the past few years have really helped raise awareness among teachers and staff on what to look out for, although it's not always easy to determine if something is bullying or not.
"A lot of times, you have both students involved, so it's not bullying as much as a different kind of confrontation," she said.
With the highest student population in the state, it might be a logical conclusion that Ridgely-Turner and her peers see more confrontations than any other school district in Iowa.
But according to state records for that year, officials reported nearly four times as much bullying going on in the halls of the Davenport School District (477 reported incidents) than either Des Moines Independent (155) or Cedar Rapids (87).
Ellen Reilly, a learning support specialist in the Davenport district, said the school system has spent a substantial amount of time training on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a system that was purchased by Scott County for the schools because bullying "is not just a school problem."
Reilly said she would put Davenport's system - it includes data collection, student surveys and peer support - against any in the state.
Still, she acknowledges that it's unlikely that the program comes close to catching or preventing all the bullying that goes on. According to the figures reported to the state, only 2.8 percent of Davenport's students were bullied in the 2009-10 school year.
"Self-reported research had pretty much shown consistently that one-in-four students are the victims of bullying, with 15 percent being frequent targets," Reilly said.
Glass said the state needs to step up its efforts if it wants to get an accurate accounting of how many students are bullied; more important than that, he said, is being able to mitigate the problem.
"Having a safe learning environment, a safe school for every kid, is critical, and if we have kids coming to school afraid, intimidated, that is a huge impediment to learning," he said. "This is foundational."
He said a $2.6 million federal Safe and Supportive Schools grant, which the state won in April, will give the state more resources toward anti-bullying programs, such as staff training and public awareness.
"We're trying to make a broad, institutional change," he said. "We didn't get into this overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight."
Gentile, the ISU psychologist, said the real breakthrough will happen when bullying is looked upon in the same way as another form of abuse that used to be considered acceptable.
"Anybody who works in a regular workplace knows that you don't define what sexual harassment is, it's up to the victim to define it," he said. "It's the same way for bullying; it is, if that's what the victim says it is."