GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Kevin Epling, who is leading the state's anti-school-bullying campaign, was quick to respond to a Target 8 investigation into how schools are reporting -- or not reporting -- bullying.
"As a school, you cannot not report something so you look good," said Epling, whose 8th-grade son, Matt, committed suicide after an anti-gay hazing at an East Lansing middle school.
"We've got to make sure that we have safety over our school image."
A state website shows Michigan schools reported 34,000 bullying cases last year, according to a Target 8 analysis. Grand Rapids Public Schools reported 1,800, while some districts, including Rockford, showed none.
"As a victim, you're going to say, 'Wait a second, you know this happened to me and you're not reporting it?'" Epling said.
But Grand Rapids school leaders said their number of bullying incidents is closer to 60. Rockford officials say they disciplined nearly 50 for hazing and harassment.
They blame confusion over the definition of bullying.
"Some schools don't report anything because they don't want to be seen as the bad school," Epling said.
Epling said Target 8's findings show a need for accurate reporting and a single definition of bullying. Accurate numbers would help schools track bullying and which programs work best to curb it, he said.
"I want schools to report it so they have an idea of what's going on in their schools so they can take the best action to combat it," he said. "If we don't have statistics, we're just throwing money away."
Meanwhile, a retired Grand Rapids principal said she believes the bullying numbers are higher than her former district claims.
"Most of the disciplinary problems that came my way had something to do with bullying," former Kent Hills Elementary Principal Michele Coyne told Target 8. "The numbers could be really quite high, and I wouldn't be embarrassed about that. It means that someone's paying attention and saying bullying is not OK."
Coyne did her dissertation on bullying and started an anti-bullying program at Kent Hills Elementary that spread to a handful of other Grand Rapids schools.
Students went to assemblies every Monday morning, filed complaints and suggestions in boxes school-wide and took anti-bullying pledges. Teachers started working closely with bullies.
"We were very intentional in teaching kids about, what does a bully look like? What can we do to support a victim? What can a bystander do?" Coyne said.
Misconduct reports and suspensions dropped dramatically, she said.
Before she retired in 2010, she pitched her program to the district, which turned her down.
"I felt like it was working for us and wouldn't it be cool if we could do it system-wide?" she said.
Instead, the district started a new program to reward good behavior.
Kent Hills fifth-grader Lewis Richardson liked it better the old way, a couple of years ago, when Coyne was his principal and held the Monday meetings.
"It was basically no bullying when they used to do it every Monday morning."
Now, he said, the bullies are back.
"I notice more bullying that happens on the playground," he said.
One person was arrested after a threatening comment resulted in a school district briefly locking down its schools Friday morning.
It was a crazy scene during an attempted robbery inside a Family Fare in Ottawa County early Friday.
The couple were in their 70s.