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How to Navigate New York's Murky System for Tracking Bullying in Schools

By  Amy Zimmer and Nigel Chiwaya | September 9, 2015 7:42am 

 Alex Skolnick, 17, was bullied for three years during middle school, but said nothing was done to stop it. He's now a volunteer at his high school with a group designed to stop bullying.
Alex Skolnick, 17, was bullied for three years during middle school, but said nothing was done to stop it. He's now a volunteer at his high school with a group designed to stop bullying.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

REGO PARK — Alex Skolnick was bullied so badly in middle school that he used to fake being sick so he could stay home.

For three years, bullies teased and taunted him, sometimes daily, for such things as raising his hand a lot in class. He reported the problem to his guidance counselor, but nothing ever changed, he said.

"I would sometimes make up stories that my stomach hurt," said Alex, now 17, who no longer attends the school where he was bullied and is a high school senior at Metropolitan Expeditionary High School.

"My parents knew that my stomach didn't hurt, but I wanted the day to escape from school."

Alex reached his breaking point when a bully stabbed him in the back with a pencil. He pushed the student and stuffed the pencil into his perpetrator's backpack — leading him to get into trouble instead of his bully, he said.

 Allison Mutzel is the principal of Opportunity Charter School on West 113th Street in Harlem.
Allison Mutzel is the principal of Opportunity Charter School on West 113th Street in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

"I don't think there's any kid right now that never experienced bullying of one kind or another," said Alex, who has mild to moderate learning disabilities and eventually found a supportive environment in the small classes of the high school he now attends.

"I think that every kid has faced some sort of challenge."

Bullying is an issue that has come into sharp focus for parents and educators alike in recent years, but how New York City schools track and respond to incidents remains murky — making it difficult for parents to find out whether bullying is an issue at their child's school.

There are two sets of bullying data that schools are required to report to the city's Department of Education which are, in turn, reported to the state. The city has come under fire, in audits, for under-reporting bullying incidents.

There are also school surveys the DOE gives to students in sixth through 12th grade that ask whether bullying is a problem.

The students' perceptions are often at odds with the schools' reported incidents, with students feeling like bullying is a bigger issue than the data might indicate.

To help parents navigate the information that's out there, DNAinfo New York has created a way for parents to look up all bullying incidents reported by each school in 2013-2014, the most recent year available. The explanation below it seeks to clarify the current process.


► How city schools are (or aren't) tracking bullying

Two separate state Education Department databases track bullying.

The first is called VADIR — or Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting. It was created in 2000 and tracks bullying using 20 categories. A formula is then used to crunch the data from the various categories to determine whether a school should be on a "persistently dangerous" list.

The second, created by the Dignity for all Students Act, was implemented by the state in 2012 to address cyberbullying and bias-related bullying (targeting race, religion, gender or weight, for example) as part of a bigger effort to help make schools safe environments free from discrimination, harassment and bullying.

The goal was to use that data to shift schools' culture.

But the vast majority of schools are failing to report incidents, critics say.

Only 30 percent of the city's roughly 1,700 public and charter schools reported some form of bullying to the state’s database created under the Dignity Act, according to figures from the 2013-2014 school year.

And a handful of schools seem to have the bulk of the incidents.

The top 10 schools with reported bullying incidents — eight of which are charters — represented 20 percent of the roughly 2,000 reported incidents.

These schools, however, may not necessarily have a bigger bullying problem. They might just be better at reporting incidents, advocates say.

The low rates of reported incidents under the Dignity Act indicate a lack of understanding on the part of school staff on how or what to report, said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, who was on a task force charged with implementing the Dignity Act.

"It's a complete failure of the intent of the law," Miller said. "Nine out of 10 educators do not understand there are two reports and they don't have a good incentive to report well. It's not like you'll get an infusion of support or training if you report."

And because the state doesn't crunch the data until the following school year, "it really becomes an exercise in accounting rather than an exercise in [changing] school climate," Miller said.

► Students say bullying is more pervasive than reported incidents indicate

Bullying affects most schools, if you ask students.

According to the annual Department of Education school surveys given to sixth through 12th graders, at least some students at 99.6 percent of middle and high schools said that bullying happens all or most of the time.

VADIR vs School Surveys

These charts show a dot representing each of the city's public middle and high schools. Their locations on the grid are based on how frequently their students reported in surveys that they felt bullying was pervasive in their schools, compared to how many bullying incidents the school administration actually reported to the state. Source: NYSED, 2015 NYC School Surveys

DASA vs School Surveys

"I believe [bullying] is a problem at every school, [but] most schools don't report it,” said Allison Mutzel, middle school principal of Morningside Heights' Opportunity Charter School — which ranked ninth in the city for its 17 incidents reported under the Dignity Act.

Mutzel said she doesn't think the West 113th Street school, known for serving a large population of special needs children, has a bigger bullying problem than elsewhere — but she does believe the school takes a more proactive approach in registering and addressing the problem.

“I'm sure we could get away with not reporting, but the problem is if we don't report, we can't treat because there's no record of it," she said, adding that an estimated 75 percent of the incidents they’ve reported happen between students on Facebook, off of school property.

"It's easy to say that happened at 10 o'clock at night, but at the end of day, it affects school culture," Mutzel said. "The [victim] has to sit with the other student in class. It affects learning."

► How some schools take bullying very seriously

School leaders at the Hyde Leadership Charter School, a highly regarded Hunts Point K-12 school, encourage students to speak up if they feel threatened, unsafe or under attack because of another person's behavior when it first occurs and "not wait until the second time," explained Joshua Williams, Hyde's communications manager and former middle and high school teacher there.

The school had 46 reported incidents under the Dignity Act, the second most in the city.

"Our philosophy is to empower kids," Williams said. "Our students are taught to recognize and take action."

Bullied students initiate a peer conference with a dean's supervision, or, for more severe infractions, the students' parents are brought in for mediation.

The charter also does not use the DOE's online reporting system but its own to log incidents and then reports its data directly to the state, as other charters might do as well.

While Hyde has higher numbers of reported bullying than the city average, students felt safe there, Williams added, noting that the 19 percent of its students reported that bullying happens all or most of the time on DOE school surveys, which was lower than the citywide average of 23 percent of students.

For Alex Skolnick, the welcoming community at his new, small public high school in Forest Hills was the "antithesis" of his junior high.

Students hold weekly meetings, centered on different topics and are often encouraged to share personal experiences they deem important, ranging from LGBT issues to stories of students trying to harm themselves.

Such sessions, Skolnick said, made students feel closer.

"There wasn't teasing at the end," he said. "I think my school really fosters anti-bullying in that we really are a community and have a say in what's going on."