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January 26, 2013

Bullying problem persists

School data rules lacking in clarity, advocates argue

HARRISBURG — A little more than two years ago, Brandon Bitner, a freshman at Midd-West High School in Snyder County, walked away from his home in the middle of the night.

He never came home.

Brandon eventually arrived at a lonely spot along routes 11-15 about halfway between Harrisburg and Selinsgrove and stepped into the path of a tractor-trailer.

His mother and friends have maintained that his suicide was caused by despair over bullying. Even now, Brandon’s mom, Tammy Simpson, says that school officials have never acknowledged that bullying was a factor in her son’s death.

In an email Friday night, Midd-West School District Superintendent Wesley Knapp said that while school officials are “saddened at the loss of this young man,” school officials have never been able to find any evidence that Brandon had reported being bullied or found any witnesses in the school to verify the family’s oft-repeated suggestion that Brandon had been a victim of bullying in school.

“When a child takes his or her life it is painful beyond description and it is rare for those closest to see the picture for what it really is,” Knapp said. “We remain saddened at the loss of this young man and we continue to do all that we can do to ensure that such an event would never occur again in our community. “

Simpson said she has begun having conversations with school officials about working cooperatively on an anti-bullying campaign at Brandon’s former school.

Still, “When you talk to students, they say there are still problems,” Simpson said. “When you talk to teachers and administrators, they say things are better.”

The disparity is all too common, advocates say, as school officials are often loathe to report or publicly admit that bullying is a problem.

“We think that in many cases, school administrators have one spreadsheet with the actual number of incidents that they keep in their office for their use, and another set of data that they submit to the state,” said Jason Goodman of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, the organization that has taken the lead in advocacy on behalf of the legislation.

Goodman and Simpson are working with a group of lawmakers to change the reporting rules so that schools have less leeway in determining whether to describe school-based harassment as bullying.

The Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act would create a clearer definition of bullying, require the Department of Education to provide additional training for teachers on recognizing bullying and require the department to create an online reporting system for bullying.

Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester County, the prime sponsor of the Safe Schools Act, said that tightening up the definition of bullying will remove any wiggle room that contributes to striking disparities in reporting from one school district to another.

“I don’t think the definitions are clear enough,” Truitt said. “We can’t hold anyone accountable because the rules are too fuzzy.”

The lack of clarity has allowed school districts to submit data about bullying prevalence that simply is not realistic, advocates argue.

Dozens of school districts in Pennsylvania reported no incidents of bullying in reports they are required to file with the Department of Education each year.

An analysis of safe school reports filed by a number of rural Pennsylvania districts shows that even those districts that reported bullying did so at rates that vary dramatically.

In a number of cases, schools reported as many, or more cases, of threats against teachers and administrators as they did bullying of students.

Tim Eller, a spokesman with the Department of Education, said that administrators must certify that the reports are accurate, but that some school officials worry that reporting too much bullying will cast their schools in a bad light.

Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Ellwood City, a co-sponsor of the Safe Schools legislation, said he became interested in the issue because he has had conversations from parents who have abandoned the traditional bricks-and-mortar public school system in favor of cyber charter schools or private schools.

 “I’ve had parents tell me about their kids missing schools because of bullying or giving up on school,” Gibbons said. Gibbons said that some of the problems associated with safe schools reporting is that the process is so cumbersome that school administrators may not always complete the reports thoroughly. The new legislation would require the Department of Education to develop an online reporting system for schools to use for bullying and require that the system automatically produce update reports for administrators and other officials.

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