A report released last week by the D.C. Office of Human Rights says the city’s public middle schools and high schools submitted records showing that less than 1 percent of their students reported being bullied during the 2015-2016 school year.
The report points out that those numbers are at odds with the city’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which consists of a confidential questionnaire given to all students in public middle schools and public high schools, including public charter schools.
The latter survey, which is designed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 31 percent of middle school students and 12 percent of high school students reported being subjected to bullying during the same school year.
That survey also found that 29 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual middle school students and 40 percent of LGB high school students reported being subjected to bullying. The survey did not include information about transgender students.
The Office of Human Rights Report, Youth Bullying Prevention in the District of Columbia: School Year 2015-2016 Report, says the bullying data collected by the public schools do not break down their data for LGBT students.
“Although the District has one off the lowest rates of bullying as self-reported by middle and high school students on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, these numbers are still extraordinarily high,” the report says. “Thirty one percent of middle school students and 12 percent of high school students mean that over 6,000 of D.C.’s 6th through 12th graders feel as though they have been bullied in the past year,” it says.
“Bullying is linked to several detrimental outcomes ranging from decreased academic achievement and increased school absenteeism to increased risk for suicidality,” the report continues. “Effectively addressing and preventing bullying remains a critical priority for the District.”
Suzanne Greenfield, director of the Office of Human Rights’ Citywide Bullying Prevention Program, said the bullying report represents the second such annual report mandated under regulations associated with the Youth Bullying Prevention Act of 2012.
That act, which was passed by the D.C. Council and signed by then Mayor Vincent Gray, requires all of the city’s public schools and public charter schools to put in place approved bullying prevention policies and practices.
Local LGBT advocacy organizations were part of a coalition of groups that pushed hard for the passage of the Youth Bullying Prevention Act. The LGBT groups pointed to national studies showing that LGBT students and youth are subjected to bullying at a significantly higher rate than straight students.
Greenfield said her office is working with school officials to take steps to improve the reporting of bullying for the 2017-2018 school year. She said the final implementation regulations associated with the Youth Bullying Prevention Act were not completed until around the spring of 2016, which made it difficult for many of the individual schools to develop policies for reporting incidents of bullying in time for the OHR report released last week.
According to Greenfield, she and school officials are also looking at another school bullying survey that tested the use of two different definitions of bullying. One was identical to the definition used in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The other refined the definition to reflect what Greenfield said is a “power imbalance” believed by experts to be a key factor in how bullying is carried out.
Similar to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the new survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, defined bullying in the first of two test versions as an incident when “one or more students tease, threaten, spread rumors about, hit, shove or hurt another student.”
But the second version added new language saying, “It is not bullying when students of about the same strength or power argue or fight or tease each other in a friendly way. Bullies are usually stronger, or have more friends or money, or some other power over the student being bullied.”
To the surprise of some observers, Greenfield said findings of the second version with the refined definition of bullying showed that the number of students saying they had been victims of bullying dropped by more than half.
“So we’re really in a place right now where the definition is so all over the place,” Greenfield told the Blade. “I don’t know if the contradiction is that kids are just allowed to interpret anytime something mean happens it’s bullying or if they’re really talking about the specific nature of bullying.”
She said experts would continue to assess all of the various studies and surveys on bullying to develop the best possible definition so that schools, including the D.C. public school system, can develop the best possible methods for reporting and preventing bulling.
Adalphie Johnson, an official with the LGBT youth advocacy group SMYAL, called the findings of the bullying report troubling.
“As one of many agencies in Washington, D.C. that work directly with LGBTQ youth we have first-hand experience on working with youth who share stories of being bullied in schools on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “The unfortunate part is many of these stories go unreported.”
She said SMYAL clients who report having been victimized by bullying have had mixed reviews of how their respective schools responded, with some saying teachers and administrators were helpful and sympathetic while others reported the response as not being very favorable.
“Unfortunately, due to lack of cultural competency training, some administrators and teachers do not have the knowledge to properly address the situations,” Johnson said. “In essence, the youth are not taken seriously.”
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large), who serves as chair of the Council’s Education Committee, said the committee would hold an oversight hearing on school bullying issues on Feb. 28.
He said the school bullying report released by the Office of Human Rights raises issues about school reporting on bullying that he expects his committee to address.
bullyingCDCD.C.D.C. City CouncilD.C. Office of Human RightsDavid GrossoDistrict of ColumbiaLGBT studentslgbt youthNational Center for Educational StatisticsOCROffice of Human RightsOffice of Human Rights’ Citywide Bullying Prevention ProgramSMYALSuzanne GreenfieldU.S. Centers for Disease ControlVince GrayVincent GrayWashingtonYouth Bullying Prevention Act of 2012Youth Bullying Prevention in the District of Columbia: School Year 2015-2016 ReportYouth Risk Behavior Survey
Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou
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