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School Bullying: Education Department Touts Drop in National Rate

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By one measure, student reports of bullying at school dropped to 22 percent in 2013, the lowest rate since the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education began collecting that data in 2005.

That data is from the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a survey of a nationally representative sample of students ages 12-18 that is conducted every other year by the federal agencies. In previous years, the rate stayed around 28-32 percent. The most recent data on bullying is available in this April document and summarized in this May 1 blog post by the National Center on Education Statistics.

The Education Department drew special attention to the rate in a press release today, crediting a web of local, state, and federal policies for the drop.

"As schools become safer, students are better able to thrive academically and socially," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the release.

Among the efforts the department flagged: federal bullying prevention summits; "Dear Colleague" letters on schools' responsibility to respond to harrassment and bullying; a new requirement that schools report incidents of harassment based on religion and sexual orientation to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection; and special webinars and training modules for school staff related to bullying.

Tough to Measure

Getting a clear picture of bullying in schools is difficult to do.

There are several federal measures of bullying. Under another measure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, rates of students in grades 9-12 who reported being bullied at school have stayed around 20 percent since 2009.

And, as I reported in October, federal measures of bullying use different definitions. And because teachers, parents, students, and researchers use the term bullying in very different ways, some researchers have suggested not all of those federal measures ask about bullying in a way that will get the most accurate response from students.

A collaboratively developed uniform research definition defines bullying as: "any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated."

That may not be the definition used by parents and students in conversations with school officials.

Federal agencies want to revise the 2015 School Crime Supplement to more accurately capture bullying rates.

"That survey, one of the country's largest measures of peer victimization in schools, currently doesn't define bullying for participants at all. Rather, it asks students if, in the past year, they have been the victim of seven specific actions—including threats and destruction of property," my October story said. "Working with a research firm, the department confirmed previous research showing that 'respondents' own concepts of bullying did not always include all definitional elements, such as repetition and power imbalance,' which meant their responses may have encompassed other forms of harm from peers, skewing the statistics."

What do you think? Is bullying less of a problem in your district than it was a decade ago? Do students in your local schools feel safe a supported?

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