SPECIAL REPORT: Educators, parents share importance of tracking, preventing bullying

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I refuse to lose my son to that school.

Natalie Isham-Dean, parent

VIGO COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — It was fall of 2018 when Natalie and Joshua Isham-Dean say they were first told about their son Liam being bullied at Sarah Scott Middle School.

“One of the members of the school called Natalie and said ‘hey, there’s been an incident at school, Liam’s got an abrasion on his hand, a kid attacked him in the hallway’, so we get ahold of Liam when we get up there and it wasn’t the whole truth, Liam actually had bruising on his legs, he said that three kids had attacked him, had followed him from one classroom into the hallway, had cornered him, not allowed him to leave,” said Joshua.

Later in the semester, the Isham-Deans say there was a second incident on the school bus, where Liam was again physically attacked. This time, a police report was filed.

The Isham-Deans say the final straw was when their son issued a cry for help in the form of a threat to self-harm.

“We got called to the school; Liam had had an argument with some of his friends, and he had gone up to a teacher and said ‘I’m tired of all this stuff, I’m going to take my life’. So we as a family decided we’re not going to have him there anymore,” said Joshua.

While Vigo County School Corporation could not comment on this particular case, the Isham-Deans story sparked WTWO to take a deeper look into the issue of bullying in Indiana. Bullying is required to be reported to the Department of Education per Indiana state statute; reporting that the DOE says has several purposes.

“It gives parents an opportunity to look at the schools, to understand some of the challenges that schools actually face as well when dealing with a vast student population,” said DOE Press Secretary Adam Baker.

How VCSC addresses, monitors bullying claims:

According to the 2017-18 report from Vigo County School Corporation, there were 11 instances of physical bullying, six instances of verbal bullying, zero instances of social or relational bullying, 26 instances of written or electronic bullying, and four instances where more than one kind of bullying occurred.

Bullying reporting data from the 2017-18 school year for Vigo County School Corporation.

Dr. Robert Haworth, who became superintendent after that school year, spoke about how data like this should be interpreted.

“If you were in a district where you didn’t have many cases of bullying reported, then you may need to come back and assess what your definition is,” said Haworth.

That definition is what Haworth says can sometimes be blurry for educators.

Johnny and Bobby get in a fight and, you know, the school is able to handle that issue and it never occurs again, that isn’t bullying.

Adam Baker, Indiana Department of Education Press Secretary

“Many times, what we see as a classroom disturbance, a fight that breaks out, we have to ask ourselves, ‘is that bullying or is that a fight?'” said Haworth.

Adam Baker says bullying is defined in Indiana statute as a repeated act.

“Johnny and Bobby get in a fight and, you know, the school is able to handle that issue and it never occurs again, that isn’t bullying,” said Baker.

Baker went on to say that transparency and accurate reporting is important to the DOE.

There’s a big difference between investigating and reporting.

Tom Balitewicz, Vigo County Director of Student Services

“We encourage schools, always be up front about everything,” said Baker.
Vigo County Director of Student Services Tom Balitewicz says there is confusion among educators when it comes to recording bullying instances.

“There’s a big difference between investigating and recording and the survey that was conducted by the Department of Ed highlighted the fact that there’s confusion among school corporations about how to record those issues or allegations of bullying,” said Balitewicz.

Balitewicz points to those confusions as a cause of low numbers in the state’s data.

“Throughout the state of Indiana, the whole state, there were only 690 issues, or around that area, of physical bullying in all the state of Indiana, well we know that’s a low number and that can’t be true, so that’s a recording issue,” said Balitewicz.

The Isham-Deans share thoughts on bullying prevention:

The Isham-Deans say they too want transparency from the school corporation.

“The school just has to have accountability, if you’re an educator, your primary goal cannot be the shining coat on your school. It has to be being a voice for every child and making sure that every child has the ability to get a good education,” said Joshua.

If you’re an educator, your primary goal cannot be the shining coat on your school. It has to be being a voice for every child and making sure that every child has the ability to get a good education.

Joshua Isham-Dean, parent

Haworth says VCSC recently received a $4.2 million grant toward comprehensive counseling to better facilitate that ability to learn, which he says is prioritized by staff.

“14 thousand kids come to our schools every day and we treat them like they’re our most precious gifts, we take that charge very seriously,” said Haworth.

WTWO will be looking into the newly-released 2018-19 data from the DOE for a follow-up story with Vigo County Schools as well as other school districts.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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