Required bullying incident reporting causes confusion

19 Feb 2016 | 01:48

By Erika Norton
Schools in New York State are required to record and report all violent and disruptive incidents, including incidents of discrimination, harassment and/or bullying, according to state and federal law.

But according to a state audit released in February 2015, schools are underreporting and misclassifying incidents.

“It’s confusing,” said Susan Moore, assistant principal of S.S. Seward Institute in the Village of Florida. “It takes quite a long time to do this report because to do it correctly, in my opinion, you really have to keep going back to the directions.”

Since 2000, New York State schools have been recording violent incidents with the State Violent and Disruptive Incident Reports (VADIR) to meet the requirements of the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Such violent and disruptive incidents range from criminal mischief and minor altercations, to more serious categories such as sex offenses and even homicide.

Dignity for All Students Act
More recently in 2012, the New York State Education Department rolled out the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) with the goal of specifically addressing harassment and bullying in schools.

Under this legislation, New York schools are required to report “material incidents of discrimination and/or harassment” with the goal of making schools “a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.”

This reporting require adds another layer of protection for discrimination and harassment based on a variety of protected classes. These classes include an individual’s race, ethnic group, national origin, color, religion, religious practice, disability, gender, sexual orientation, sex and weight.

Dignity for All Students Act “was created to address harassment and discrimination, and under that, they include bullying,” said Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo. “New York State makes it pretty clear this isn’t just an anti-bullying legislation. It’s really about harassment - that’s why there’s such an emphasis on these protected classes.”

The audit
The state audit team reviewed six schools (none in Orange County). Those six schools reported 3,175 violent and disruptive incidents during the 2011-12 school year.

However, the audit team identified 935 violent and disruptive incidents that were not reported.

That included 86 out of the 219 instances of “intimidation, harassment, menacing and bullying.”

The auditors also found that 82 reported incidents were misclassified as less serious than should have been described.

‘We’re going to take it seriously’

When looking at the eight school districts in the Straus News coverage areas for Orange County, the S.S. Seward Institute in the Florida School District reported the highest number of Dignity for All Students Act incidents of discrimination and/or harassment for the 2014-15 school year, with 42 incidents.

S.S. Seward has 465 students currently enrolled, significantly less than other schools in the area who reported far less incidents.

As required by law, each school has to have a Dignity Act Coordinator, which in S.S. Seward’s case is Assistant Principal Susan Moore. She attributes the higher number of reported DASA incidents to the school’s small size.

“They’re comfortable with our staff enough to report and they know, because of our reputation as administration, that we’re going to take it seriously,” Moore said. “We’re not perfect, but I think there’s a trust level because we’re small enough. So, I think they feel more comfortable coming forward.”

The Florida Superintendent of Schools, Diane Munro, also attributed these numbers to the school’s smaller size and to the level of seriousness the administration considers bullying.

“We may, compared to other schools, overreport because we just take it very seriously,” Munro said, “and we’re just in a great situation because we know our kids, we’re able to stay on top of things.”

How the data is used
The state Education Department uses the violent and disruptive incident reports to determine whether a school is “persistently dangerous.” From the this data, a School Violence Index (SVI) is formulated for each school, which is then used to determine whether the school is “persistently dangerous.”

No school in the Orange County area has ever been designated as persistently dangerous.

If schools are underreporting and incorrectly reporting the this information, the state cannot accurately determine which schools are persistently dangerous, which is information parents especially want to know.

Where the confusion may lie
The state auditors blamed the inaccuracies on the program’s reliance on self-reported information and the inherent subjectivity involved in applying criteria in recording incidents. They also said many districts simply do not understand the reporting requires.

Then there’s the issue of how harassment is defined under Violent and Disruptive Incident Reports and the Dignity for All Students Act.

“Some of the things that would go under “intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying” behavior, would not go under DASA,” Nickerson said. “DASA asks (schools) to report a ‘material incident,’ so that means it’s a single incident or a series of incidents that creates a hostile environment and substantially interferes with a student’s education, well-being or their fear for their safety. It also needs to be specifically linked to a protected class… so for that reason, it’s more distinct.... It’s more rigorous criteria, if you will, to be considered a material incident.”

Incidents reported under the violent and disruptive category of “intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying” include a much broader spectrum of incidents, not just those that involve discrimination based on a Dignity for All Students protected class, Nickerson explained.

“Schools may be lenient in how they assess and report incidents,” the state auditors said in their report, “or they may alter the disciplinary consequences of some incident types to avoid meeting reporting criteria.”

On the other hand, Dignity for All Student data does not have any immediate consequences from the state. State Education Department spokesperson Jeanne Beattie said, this data, unlike the violent and disruptive incident reports, does not have a threshold at which a school is required to be designated on a list, such as the “persistently dangerous” list.

“While no action is required,” Beattie wrote in an email exchange, “we still use the data to monitor school climate and culture.”

Gauging the effectiveness
Some districts are also looking at their data and self-evaluating their anti-bullying programs.

Monroe-Woodbury School District has had anti-bullying programs at all of their schools for a number of years now, according to Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Eric Hassler.

What the administration is doing now is looking at how effective those programs have been and what changes may be needed. This is part of a comprehensive district-wide “School Climate Initiative” launched last year, Hassler said.

“Every year when we complete the DASA form and the VADIR form,” Hassler said, “we look at the data very, very closely and we begin to ask ourselves ‘How are these programs doing,? Are we getting the results that we want?’”

To combat some of the issues found through the audit, the state education department is sponsoring training across the state with the goal of providing participants with a better understanding of the difference between the two reporting requirements.

Munro said the Florida School District also is evaluating its information.

“The state has attempted to define what the standard is for calling something a bullying incident and yet, you will always see differences in schools,” Munro said. “The important thing is to look at your own school, where you have a certain way of approaching it, and make sure your trends are going in a good direction.”