HANCOCK COUNTY — Hancock County schools reported 100 fewer incidents of bullying to the state last school year than during the prior year, data shows.

During the 2014-15 school year, local schools submitted about 125 reports of bullying incidents across the county’s 21 buildings. Last school year, the number of cases dropped to 25, with every school district reporting fewer incidents than the year before.

Southern Hancock reported 12; Mt. Vernon recorded 11. Greenfield-Central logged two, and Eastern Hancock, the county’s smallest district reported zero, data shows.

That doesn’t necessarily signal a dramatic shift in student behavior but a better understanding of what constitutes bullying — which the state defines as a repeated pattern of harm, educators say. In addition, district leaders say they’ve stepped up anti-bullying programs, which also could have contributed to fewer incidents being reported to the Indiana Department of Education.

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But challenges remain, both because students being bullied have to report it in order for the school to pass it along and because educators using the same definition as a guideline can still disagree about what qualifies as bullying. 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 across the state reporting dozens of incidents and others reporting zero, an issue DOE officials have attributed to differing interpretations of what merits creating an official record.

Posting a photo with a teasing caption might hurt a student’s feelings, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as bullying. On the other hand, a seemingly innocent comment might have a hurtful double meaning an adult wouldn’t pick up on.

Also in 2013, legislators created a law that defined bullying and called for a reporting system to log what types of bullying occurs in local schools and how often. State law also required schools to beef up classroom lessons about bullying.

Local educators say those lessons have likely contributed to fewer cases, in part because students and staff members have a better understanding of the type of behavior that meets the state’s threshold to qualify as 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. So while that certainly happens in schools and can result in discipline from an isolated incident, that wouldn’t be reported to the state, educators say.

Across Indiana, teachers are required to go through annual training aimed at helping them identify acts of bullying.

Until a few years ago, the training was optional, something teachers might go through on their own, said Mt. Vernon Superintendent Shane Robbins.

Now, teachers and administrators from across the corporation are trained together before students arrive for the first day of school, he said.

At Greenfield Intermediate School, which reported no incidents last school year, students start the year learning about bullying behavior, said guidance counselor Kim Hunt.

They talk about the type of behavior educators expect from students through a school initiative dubbed the Principal’s Principles: Treat others the way you want to be treated, control only what’s in your power to control and respect the learning.

Bullying shouldn’t be a problem if students keep those rules in mind, she said.

Undoubtedly, there are many days when students are rude to each other, when someone’s feelings get hurt, principal Jim Bever said, but when educators sit down and review those incidents, they find they rarely meet the bullying threshold.

“The state has set a fairly high bar,” he said.

Eastern Hancock Superintendent Vicki McGuire agreed.

Nobody behaves perfectly, she wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter. Kids might occasionally be rude to one another; they might communicate with each other inappropriately, but those behaviors must be repeated to qualify as bullying, she wrote.

Nonetheless, the district works year-round to educate students about bullying, she said; in recent years, the district has begun using an app that allows students to anonymously report bullying. The district uses a program called Gaggle to monitor student communication through school email. The program can flag words or phrases linked to bullying or potential threats.

Across the county, Southern Hancock School Corp. saw a roughly 80 percent decrease in the number of incidents educators reported.

New Palestine High School Dean of Students Miles Hercamp said the drop is likely due in part to educators gaining a better understanding of what the DOE expects from reports; they’re becoming more familiar with the law.

He also believes the school district’s focus on integrating bullying education into school curriculum has helped.

When lawmakers first penned the law, Southern Hancock put together a committee of educators to develop an anti-bullying curriculum, he said. Each month, lessons across the district focus on one bullying theme, and about 15 to 30 minutes of class time is devoted to the lesson.

Social media, for example, is a theme revisited often, especially for the district’s older students. Many incidents that might be called bullying begin on those social platforms, he said.

Now the district is preparing to revisit the curriculum to evaluate aspects that might need to be changed, Hercamp said.

“Is there exact data to say this made a big impact? No, I don’t want to say there is,” he said. “But it’s brought awareness.”

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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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.