SOUTHERN INDIANA — Evan Stoner knows what it’s like to be bullied. Beginning in the seventh grade, he was perpetually ridiculed and mocked by his peers. Slurs were commonly directed toward him, and his life was threatened on more than one occasion. “I was in counselor’s weekly, if not daily. I was literally screaming out for help, saying ‘please help me. I don’t like going to class with these people. I’m scared, I’m physically scared,’” he said.
Stoner says he felt heard by the school counselors and administration, but at the same time, there was never an end to the harassment.
“I had great teachers, teachers who inspired me a lot to believe in myself, and had administrators who listened to me. But the system still failed me and failed other students,” he said. “They say they have a zero tolerance policy, but when that bullying and discrimination takes place, there’s no repercussions.”
As an adult, Stoner says he is more confident in himself, but he knows bullying is still an issue for many students.
“The future is so bright, it is changing a lot, but we still have to recognize bullying is an issue in the schools,” he said. “You can’t fix an issue if you don’t recognize an issue.”
Recognizing the issue is exactly what a new state law aims to do.
According to the Indiana Department of Education, 55 percent of schools reported having no bullying incidents during the 2016/17 school year.
House Enrolled Act 1356 was signed into law by Gov. Holcomb in March. The legislation, authored by Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, compels schools to report incidents of bullying by asserting that the data will not impact the corporation’s overall performance and by sending out annual reminders to districts of their obligation.
Local educators, however, say they’ve been reporting bullying to the state accurately for years anyway.
The four public school systems of Floyd and Clark counties were among the percent that did report bullying during the 2016/17 school year. Greater Clark County Schools reported around 70 incidents, West Clark Community Schools reported 61, New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. reported 15 (substantially lower due to a clerical error) and Clarksville Community Schools reported four. Community Montessori and Rock Creek Academy reported no incidents for that school year.
To Tina Bennett, superintendent for Clarksville Community Schools, the most important detail when it comes to reporting lies in the state-sanctioned definition of bullying and, unless that changes, her corporation won’t be changing how it does things.
According to Indiana Code, bullying is “...overt, unwanted, repeated acts or gestures…” and at Clarksville, Bennett says once an incident is addressed the first time, it’s rarely repeated.
“I don’t think, from my vantage point and the corporations I’ve been associated with throughout my history, I don’t think they’re intentionally not reporting bullying … With bullying, it’s that repeated act. That piece in there that is keeping that from being reported more often,” she said.
Furthermore, Bennett says more often than not, when an incident is investigated, it becomes evident that the conflict goes both ways, or in some cases there are more than just two students involved and each is driving dissension. Those cases do not qualify as bullying, she said.
The same applies to New Albany-Floyd County, according to Louis Jensen, assistant superintendent of high schools for the district.
“It could be a situation where it was reported as a bullying and in the instance, it’s more of a physical altercation — two kids go at each other. It’s reported as a bully but really they’re fighting with each other … Sometimes it’s not bullying, but sexual harassment, so it’s more severe,” he said.
In the cases defined as bullying, it can be that much harder to substantiate the claim. In New Albany-Floyd County last year, there were 80 reported incidents, but only 56 were substantiated, Jensen said.
THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE
As a school counselor at Grant Line Elementary School for all of her 23-year career, Lisa McCory has spent a lot of time handling bullying and she says those cases where there is no substantiation can often be the hardest.
“It’s hard if you don’t have any witnesses or notes, no video from the bus, it’s their word against the other person’s word,” McCory said. “That’s really hard because you always want to believe the victim and do everything you can to help them and empower them, but at the same time, you don’t want someone falsely accused.”
Once a bullying incident is first reported, McCory says she focuses on investigating and resolving things before the day is done. As Jensen said, there are many cases when the incident doesn’t necessarily rise to the definition of bullying. For example, a parent will call upset because their child’s friend chose to play with someone else during recess that day. There may have been feelings hurt, McCory said, but bullying is a repeated and malicious behavior.
For those cases that do turn out to be textbook bullying, more often than not, a warning or loss of privilege is enough to get the perpetrator on track. “I rarely see it go to an in-school suspension,” she said.
While the rise of social media has changed the landscape of bullying, the biggest change from McCory's point of view is who is doing the bullying.
“Whenever we first had it, it was more like the old-fashioned way of thinking of bullying. [As in] the really big kid who's bigger than the other kid, and typically it's a boy bullying a girl, and it was more just the meanness and name-calling and that kind of stuff,” she said. “It's not so much now, it's kids of all ages and sizes. A lot of my kids that have been accused of bullying and it's been substantiated, they're smaller than the victim, sometimes they’re younger than the victim, difference in age doesn't really matter anymore. Boy and girl, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
For those who are going through bullying, Stoner says, “You're not alone. I think that's important for young people to hear, you're not alone and it gets better. Never let them break your spirit, motivation, drive to succeed.”