A Channel 2 Action News investigation of student health data suggests that bullying in Georgia schools is far more prevalent than official figures reported by the state.
Channel 2 compared what Georgia students told schools on annual health surveys about bullying to what schools reported to the state about how often they actually discipline a student for bullying. The results were startling.
More than a third of the schools in Georgia teaching middle and high school students tell the state they didn’t discipline anyone for bullying in the 2017-18 school year. At those same schools, more than 16,000 students say they were bullied at least three times in just one month, according to health surveys. And 8,000 said they were bullied many times, or every day.
Georgia defines bullying as behavior that is deliberate, repeated, and involves a power imbalance where the victim is seen as weak or vulnerable. In state training, repeatedly is defined as three or four times.
Georgia schools report discipline cases to the state every year, and that includes the number of times someone was disciplined for bullying. Last year, schools reported 4,090 discipline cases involving middle and high school students.
But the annual Georgia Health Survey shows a much different picture. One question in the survey asked students how often they’d been bullied in the past month, if at all. More than 64,000 middle and high school students said they had been bullied three times or more. The state doesn’t ask the question of elementary school students.
While bullying reported on health surveys isn’t verified, it does suggest that bullying is a far greater problem than disciplinary records would suggest. Channel 2 interviewed several students who said they’d been bullied, along with their parents, to better understand how schools handle bullying allegations.
‘Doing it to be mean’
Five-Year-old Zoey Levandowski says she knows first-hand about bullying. “He’s just doing it to be mean,” Zoey said about a student she claims bullies her.
“The boy is three times my daughter’s size,” father Andy Levandowski said. “The boy’s been hitting her every single day. I mean, just all-around everyday bullying.”
Levandowski says he’s talked to the principal of North Douglas Elementary, but it hasn’t helped.
The Douglas County School System first agreed to speak about the situation if Zoey’s father would sign a privacy waiver. He did, but the school system still declined to answer questions. Instead the district provided a written statement on behalf of the school principal Karna Kelly, saying the allegations were unsubstantiated.
“The Douglas County School System is fully committed to providing our students with a safe and secure learning environment,” the statement said. “Our faculty, staff, and administrators are devoted to keeping our students safe throughout the school day. We wholeheartedly disagree with these allegations and will remain focused on providing for the safety and well-being of every student in our district.”
Channel 2 was unable to reach the parents of the student Zoey says bullied her, because the boy’s name was kept confidential.
Students told Channel 2 that they wished schools took allegations of bullying more seriously.
“I think they’re being a little too passive about the situation and they should probably take a more hands-on approach,” sixth grader Starr Haynes told Channel 2. “Posters aren’t really going to do much so you have to like get to the root of the problem.”
At Henderson Middle School in DeKalb County students have a “Bully Ambassador” program.
Seventh grade student Sophia Hook explained why.
“If you’re being bullied you’re going to want to tell your friend about it and so, like, if a student is an ambassador then you’re looking to feel more comfortable about telling them about the bullying and then they can tell an adult.”
Privacy limits what parents can know
Some parents told Channel 2 they believe school administrators either don’t want to or don’t know how to deal with bullying.
Jessica Williams’ son Kerigen is a freshman at East Paulding High school. In September, he told her a student was hitting him every day. He said he told a teacher, but nothing changed. Williams said Kerigen finally told the boy “If you hit me again, I’m hitting you back.” She went to the school and tried to stop it.
“When I went up to the school, I asked for the vice principal and she came in and she sat me down and she wanted to know what I needed,” Williams explained. “I told her that my son has been getting hit on by another student and they had planned on fighting tomorrow in second period because that’s the only class that they have together.”
“She was like, okay, I’ll handle it, you don’t have to worry about anything, there’s not going to be any fighting in this school,” Williams said.
But the fight did happen. And Kerigen though he’d solved the problem. But the next day, Kerigen said a friend of the bully approached him at his locker. Someone shot video while the bigger student sucker-punched Kerigen, sending Kerigen to the emergency room.
“Why was this not prevented, it just could have been prevented,” Williams said. The school district wouldn’t talk with us about Kerigen’s claims, Williams says school officials told her the original incidents weren’t bullying because Kerigen participated in hitting. Still, Kerigen says the boy recently apologized, and said, “You were just fun to pick on.”
Paulding County told Channel 2 that administrators followed the district’s bullying protocol and investigated the allegations thoroughly.
“The investigation considered evidence that included witness interviews, written statements and videos, and after it was concluded, the matter was then handled appropriately with appropriate consequences for those involved,” the statement said.
When Channel 2 asked the Georgia Department of Education to identify a school system that faces bullying head-on, a spokesperson pointed to DeKalb.
Vasanne Tinsley, Deputy Superintendent of Student Support and Intervention at DeKalb County Schools, says it’s never easy to investigate bullying cases.
“It is difficult, but that’s why the investigation process is so important,” Dr. Tinsley said. “It’s not a, ‘What happened, you tell me, and it’s done.’ We are often times digging in deep. We’re trying to find out what happened.”
Tinsley says that includes several interviews “not just from the ones involved, but other peers as well.”
She says sometimes parents are frustrated when they can’t find out the results of an investigation, but administrators must follow federal law.
“I take the information. I do the investigation. But I can’t come back and tell you what happened on that other end because that’s violating the privacy of that other child.”
Another problem, according to Tinsley, is people use the term bullying as a catch-all phrase, rather than applying the state definition that it must be deliberate, repeated, and involve a power imbalance.
Sophia Choi is a reporter and news anchor at Channel 2 Action News. Patti DiVincenzo is an investigative producer at Channel 2.
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