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Updated: Tuesday, 22 Nov 2011, 2:34 PM EST
Published : Monday, 21 Nov 2011, 11:00 PM EST
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - A state web site shows students in Michigan were bullied more than 34,000 times last year and that Grand Rapids Public Schools ranked among the top in reported incidents, according to a Target 8 analysis.
But, the analysis also shows that Rockford Public Schools reported no bullying incidents last year, and none the year before.
School officials from both extremes disputed the figures, and say "confusion" over the definition of bullying led to mistakes -- in some cases, huge mistakes.
"Are the numbers high or low?" Grand Rapids schools spokesman John Helmholdt said. "It depends on what school district; it depends on how they track it; it depends on how they report it. I don't think it's the most accurate reflection of what the numbers actually are."
Michigan schools are required to provide yearly totals of bullying cases, and other safety violations. It's part of the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools Act.
And, the stats are there for anyone with a computer -- on a state website known as CEPI, the Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Target 8 discovered the numbers, and it appeared they would provide some answers about bullying,and just how big a problem it is in Michigan .
"We take bullying very seriously," Rockford Schools Superintendent Michael Shibler said. School officials cite a national study that shows the fear of being bullied keeps 180,000 students a day from school.
State legislators say 10 Michigan students have committed suicide in the last decade after being bullied. In fact, the pending state anti-bullying legislation is named after Matt Epling, an 8th-grader from East Lansing who killed himself after bullies hazed him for being gay.
"The truth is, the world is full of them, right?" ProKarate Rockford instructor Wendy Redding recently told a class of mostly Rockford-area elementary students. "And, the truth is, we just have to know how to conduct ourselves so that we can deal with people who are, unfun. Right? Unkind. Unfair."
Target 8 analyzed the state spreadsheet. And, the numbers were startling -- last year in Michigan , reported bullying incidents topped 34,000, down slightly from the year before. They were spread among nearly 5,000 school buildings.
In Grand Rapids alone: 1,800 reported bullying incidents -- with seven schools in the top 25 for bullying in Michigan .
"We take bullying very seriously," Riverside Middle School Principal Donna Boman said. "We take the safety of all our students very seriously, so any time we hear of an incident, we report it and we're going to deal with it."
Grand Rapids' Riverside Middle ranked second in the state, with more than 350 reported bullying incidents last year, the Target 8 analysis showed.
"It seems very high," the principal said.
Target 8 found big numbers elsewhere in West Michigan : In Battle Creek schools, more than 400 reported bullying cases; in Kalamazoo, just about 1,500; in Wyoming , almost 300.
But school officials dispute the numbers. Some say they didn't know bullying stats were even on the state Web site until Target 8 told them.
They blame confusion -- over the definition of "bullying." And they blame confusing laws -- a federal law that requires "bullying" reports and a state law that does not.
"Certainly ours seem to be a little on the high side, and other districts seem to be on the very low side," said Helmholdt, the Grand Rapids schools spokesman.
The Target 8 findings led Grand Rapids school officials to start their own investigation. They say the confusion led them to make a big mistake -- reporting all their "disorderly conduct" numbers as "bullying." That includes everything from bullying, to trespassing, to texting during class.
It was Larry Johnson, chief of Grand Rapids school security, who crunched the numbers after the Target 8 investigation. And, this is what he said he found:
Instead of 1,800 bullying cases in the city's schools, there were 60. And, instead of 356 at Riverside Middle, he found 4.
He said those numbers could be low because some bullying incidents become more serious and are reported as assaults. Riverside Middle reported nearly 50 assaults last year. And, he said, most bullying goes un-reported.
Potterville Elementary, a small kindergarten- through fourth-grade school southwest of Lansing , ranked No. 1.
It reported 527 bullying incidents last year, up from 23 the year before, the state web site shows.
Potterville Superintendent Timothy Donahue, who was unaware of the mistake, blamed "user error" by the new principal. Whenever she talked to a student about misbehavior, of any kind, she marked it in the category reported as bullying, he said.
"We don't want that perception of our school," he said.
And, then, there's Rockford.
Shibler, the superintendent, said his school reports bullying as "hazing or harassing." However, there is no such category on the state Web site.
"Of course, there's bullying, but maybe we
should do a better job of how we define it," Shibler said.
Rockford schools also crunched numbers at Target 8's request -- and told us they disciplined 46 students for "hazing and harassment" last year.
At ProKarate Rockford, the instructor recently asked her class of mostly Rockford-area, elementary-aged students a simple question: "Anybody here ever run into a bully at school?"
Just about everyone raised their hands, including Jacob, a fourth-grader. He says he was bullied at Rockford's Parkside elementary just the other day.
"There was a fifth-grader, and he took my coat and threw it in a puddle, so I told him to stop," he said.
He recently took a "Peace Warriors" class from his karate instructor, where he learned how to deal with bullies.
"You can't like slouch down, you have to stand up straight, and you have to not like always be weird or whatever," he said.
"It's not the bullies that we need to change, it's ourselves," Wendy Redding, his instructor, said. The key, she said, is "conducting yourself confidently."
Read the most recent statistics (Excel file)