HANCOCK COUNTY — Fewer than 1 percent of the 12,620 students in Hancock County’s four school districts were bullied last school year, according to data provided to the state by local educators.

As school districts in the county recognize October as National Bullying Prevention Month, officials from the Indiana Department of Education are working to standardize how bullying incidents are tracked. Indiana legislators began requiring school districts in 2013 to self-report confirmed cases of bullying, but submitted data has been spotty since then, with some districts reporting dozens of incidents and others reporting zero, an issue DOE officials attribute to differing interpretations of what merits an official record.

Local educators reported 126 bullying incidents across the county’s 21 buildings last school year.

In recent years, schools have dedicated programming to identifying and addressing issues with bullying. Legislators joined the effort by creating a legal definition of bullying in 2013 and calling for a reporting system aimed at logging what type of bullying occurs in local schools and how often. Department of Education officials say the data collection is a step in the right direction, but the system, which depends on self-reporting, needs improvement.

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David Woodward, director of school building safety and security for the Indiana Department of Education, has been in charge of collecting and analyzing bullying data for the past two years. While he said he’s been pleased with the steps districts have taken in recent years to reverse bullying trends, he recognizes the current system in place, which depends on the honor system, leaves room for improvement.

Deciding what constitutes bullying — the state’s definition is a cumbersome 353 words — has been one issue for educators, Woodward said.

“Some districts were including every single time bullying had been mentioned in a discipline report rather than actual confirmed cases of bullying,” Woodward said.

A new method of collecting information about bullying incidents during the current school year seeks to standardize the data, Woodward said.

Educators will soon use new software that simplifies the submission process to track bullying data, Woodward said. Once the submission process is standardized, he said, he expects to see more reliable results that districts can depend on to track progress.

“There’s been a learning curve for schools so far,” Woodward said. “But I’m really confident that things will get going in the right way.”

This month, local schools have held special programming in recognition of October as National Bullying Prevention Month, a campaign started in 2006 that seeks to raise awareness of bullying prevention techniques. Through various presentations and school events, teachers and administrators are trying to teach students about a complex topic that can require a delicate explanation, officials said.

Mt. Vernon reported 65 bullying incidents. Southern Hancock reported 43. Eastern Hancock logged 14 total incidents. The county’s largest district, Greenfield-Central School Corp., logged the fewest incidents in the county, reporting four cases across the district’s eight school buildings.

Of the local incidents reported during the 2014-15 school year, about 51 percent were oral, involving repeated name-calling or taunting. The remaining incidents involved physical altercations, written or electronic threats, and social bullying, involving purposeful exclusion or the fabrication of derogatory rumors.

State law requires all districts to train teachers on how to recognize and respond to bullying.

Greenfield-Central Superintendent Harold Olin said the district’s teachers and staff members undergo annual training in the weeks leading up to the school year on effective strategies for identifying bullying. That training outlines guidelines for intervening and responding to bullying incidents, he said. Staff members report suspected bullying to administrators, who thoroughly investigate the incident and determine whether it meets state requirements for a report to the Department of Education, he said.

Olin, who previously served as principal of Maxwell Intermediate School, said he’s noticed a shift in the public opinion of bullying in recent decades. Previously, some educators might have chosen a hands-off approach, allowing parents and students to sort out matters on their own, but that’s no longer the case, he said.

Terry Miller, a social worker at Weston Elementary School, which reported no incidents, said she instructs students and teachers to draw a distinction between teasing and the type of repeated behavior that constitutes bullying.

In presentations to kindergartners, Miller hands out pieces of sandpaper and velvet for students to pass around. She uses the velvet to illustrate kindness, while the sandpaper exemplifies abrasive, unkind speech.

“It’s a very tactile experience, and it can really communicate to them what those words can make people feel like,” Miller said.

Ryan Stapp, a second-grader at Weston, said he’s confronted bullies in the past but has learned the best strategies for dealing with them.

“They can shove you; they can hit you; they can call you names and try to make you feel like you’re nothing,” the 8-year-old said. “But you can’t let yourself get dragged down by bullies. You pick yourself up and tell an adult.”

Last Wednesday at Sugar Creek Elementary School, students wore orange clothing to school to draw attention to bullying.

Kindergarten teacher Kristen McQueen said she teaches a lesson about bullying at the beginning each year, but she also reiterates the importance of good behavior year round.

“I try to use everyday happenings that I can turn into teachable moments,” McQueen said.

If she notices a student picking on another, she’ll pull both children together for a discussion. If the behavior persists, she’ll involve the administrators, but that’s never been necessary, she said.

In Southern Hancock School Corp., of the 43 reported bullying incidents last school year, 29 came from Doe Creek Middle School.

Scott Shipley, principal at Mt. Vernon Middle School, which had 30 reported incidents last school year, said that, while he hopes to see that number decline in future years, he’s thankful that there’s now a legal definition of bullying for districts to go by.

“It seems like a few years ago, every little conflict students would have would be grouped together as bullying,” Shipley said. “Now we have more dialogue about what it is and what it isn’t.”

At a glance

Reported bullying from 2014-2015 school year:

Greenfield-Central School Corp.: 4 incidents

Mt. Vernon School Corp.: 43 incidents

Southern Hancock School Corp.: 65 incidents

Eastern Hancock School Corp.: 14 incidents

Source: Indiana Department of Education

At a glance

What’s considered bullying?

As defined by the Indiana General Assembly, bullying means purposeful, repeated acts or gestures, including verbal or written communications or images, physical acts, aggression or any other behaviors that are committed by a student or group against another student with intent to harass or harm. A single act of teasing or picking on another student does not meet the state’s definition of bullying.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.