Less bullying? Or just better reporting? NJ schools find 9 percent drop

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 Students hold candles and balloons as they join hundreds of people gathering in the setting sun, for an anti-bullying rally Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Sayreville, N.J. Organizers say the goal of the event is to promote unity and healing within the community, as well as to show support for the victims of bullying. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Students hold candles and balloons as they join hundreds of people gathering in the setting sun, for an anti-bullying rally Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Sayreville, N.J. Organizers say the goal of the event is to promote unity and healing within the community, as well as to show support for the victims of bullying. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

New Jersey schools reported a 9 percent decrease in bullying incidents for the 2013-2014 school year, according to a state Department of Education report released this week.

Since 2011, the annual report on violence and vandalism in schools has included information on bullying as mandated by the state’s sweeping Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.

 

The report doesn’t claim a cause-and-effect relationship between prevention efforts implemented according to the anti-bullying law.

And some experts say more details are needed on what works to prevent bullying, and where.

“What was really kind of strikingly absent from that report was any kind of attention to differences in the function of urban vs. suburban vs. rural,” said Paul Boxer, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-Newark who focuses the development of aggressive behavior. “Those are important distinctions that are incredibly relevant when you start talking about youth violence prevention.”

Other critiques include the fact that the Electronic Violence and Vandalism Reporting System relies entirely on self-reported data and the possibility that administrators at different schools may not be defining the same kinds of behavior as “bullying.”

The official definition of bullying combines three factors: an imbalance of power, acts that cause harm, and a persistent relationship between bully and victim.

To the second point, Michael Yaple, the department’s director of public information, said education officials have spent a lot of time over three years “training school officials to make sure incidents of bullying would be reported.”

Before the law, he said, reports of bullying were high but irregular.

“Some school districts were reporting the proverbial cafeteria line scuffle,” said Yaple, while other schools reported “only incidents that they thought were true bullying cases.”

A call for more detailed, easy-to-access data

Boxer said in order to know what kinds of anti-bullying interventions have been successful in New Jersey, there would need to be more “controlled interventions,” where data could be taken to show some kind of cause and effect, as well as independent evaluators.

Researchers could contribute more to the public understanding of EVVRS data, Boxer said, if the records were easier to access online. Right now, “it’s a user-unfriendly process, and the data don’t allow themselves to be extracted easily,” he said.

The report recommends the department gather more demographic information that would “identify racial and other demographic subgroup disparities in discipline,” as well as “collect additionaldata to more effectively target resources to areas of concern.” It also recommends tracking outcomes better to glean lessons on the effect of intervention.

And even if it’s only reports of bullying — not total incidents — that are down, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Boxer.

“One possibility is that this law is making teachers and administrators better at recognizing what constitutes violence and aggression, rather than kids just horsing around,” he said.

On the flip side, Boxer said, the law has called out types of violence, including hazing, that administrators had been turning a blind eye to.

Yaple was quick to point out another statistic from the report: Schools doubled the number of bullying programs over the last two years.

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