Two percent of middle and high school students across Georgia are bullied or threatened each school day.
About 4 percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders said their classmates picked on them every day, according to the state's 2016-17 Student Health Survey 2.0.
Those may seem like small numbers, but bullying is a serious problem that affects too many students, said Beverly Stewart, director of student support services for the Bibb County district.
And it's not just the big kid on the playground who's to blame. Social media and technology have made bullying easy and more prevalent, and it's become a real challenge for parents and schools to address the issue, said Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of external affairs for the Georgia Department of Education.
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"We're really at a state of emergency with bullying," Andrea Thomas said after the Bibb County school district's first Anti-Bullying Summit at Central High School late last month. Her son, a ninth-grader at Westside High School, has a mild form of autism and has been bullied since fourth grade.
"I am a parent who has dealt with this for years, who still deals with this. Some things were handled to the best of their ability, but I don't think enough has been done in terms of reaching students."
A 'substantial impact'
A state report for the 2016-17 school year lists 438 bullying episodes in Bibb County, 64 in Houston County, 27 in Monroe, 36 in Peach, 18 in the Dublin city system and 16 in Baldwin. The report does not indicate when multiple students were involved in incidents, or if the same students are involved in multiple incidents, according to Bibb officials.
The Georgia Department of Education defines bullying as any attempt or threat to harm another person and the ability to do so. It also can involve intentional displays of force or written, verbal or physical actions that make students feel fearful, harassed or intimidated.
Data from the Bibb district showed that 600 total students were involved in physical bullying, verbal/non-verbal bullying and cyberbullying during the same year. Appling, Howard, Rutland and Bullard-Hudson middle schools, Bruce Elementary and SOAR Academy all had 38 or more incidents.
Bibb incidents are down so far this year, with 183 incidents as of February, compared to 446 at that time in 2017. Relatively new character education and support programs have contributed to this decline, Jamie Cassady, assistant superintendent for student affairs, said during the Bibb summit. Weaver, Howard and Rutland middle schools have had the most bullying incidents this year, with more than 20 each, but 18 schools have had none.
Bullying can affect students' overall development and their social and emotional well-being, said Beverly Stewart, director of student support services for the Bibb County district. Victims may suffer from depression or low self-esteem, and bullying can lead to suicidal thoughts or thoughts of violent revenge, said Angela Solomon, a bullying compliance officer for the Bibb district. Bullying can also carry over into adulthood and lead to criminal activity.
"It does have a substantial impact on a student's ability to learn and function in a normal school setting when they are a target of bullying," Stewart said.
The state and many districts have been updated their bullying policies. The Georgia Department of Education provides bullying awareness and prevention resources and training for districts. Georgia Emergency Management & Homeland Security Agency and the Regional Educational Service Agency also offer classes.
Teachers, counselors and administrators are trained to deal with bullying issues, as are social workers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other support staff. School staff members in Houston County who work directly with students complete bullying training at the beginning of every semester, said Lionel Brown, executive director for secondary operations.
Bullying is a "symptom of negative school climate," and stabilizing that climate has to be a priority, McGiboney said. One of the most effective frameworks for reducing bullying is the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach, which focuses on positive incentives. Almost half the public schools in Georgia — including the Bibb, Houston and Monroe districts — are now using PBIS.
"The key is to create an environment where kids are comfortable telling teachers and other staff members what's going on at school," McGiboney said. "Assure them that if you talk to a teacher or staff member, something is going to happen."
Students who target others are usually trying to hide something within themselves, and an emphasis on positivity can help them deal with those issues, said Marcy Hunt-Harris, Monroe County's director of student support services. Districts have to build children's self-esteem and confidence and equip them with strategies to address negativity when it arises.
Students or parents need to tell educators about bullying immediately, because they can't fix something they don't know about, the experts said. All adults in the building, from custodians and nutrition workers to bus drivers and counselors, are prepared to help students who approach them, Hunt-Harris said.
If they don't want to talk about the situation face to face, they can call the Georgia Department of Education's anonymous school safety hotline — 1-877-SAY-STOP — that routes complaints to the proper district.
Bibb County has its own bullying hotline at 478-779-3711 and an online platform called "Let's Talk!" where issues can be reported, Stewart said. Parents of Houston County students can email Webmaster@hcbe.net about incidents.
Some Bibb schools also have "bullying boxes" for confidential notes, Cassady said. And Howard Middle students can scan a "QR code" — a bar code that's readable by smartphones — with their cellphone to request to speak with a counselor, Principal Kevin Adams said.
During the summit, one high school girl said some students are afraid to stand up for themselves or afraid they'll get bullied too if they defend someone else. And not all students are comfortable talking to their parents about the bullying issues they're facing.
Schools try to build relationships with students, so they won't be scared to report situations to adults, Brown said. At home, parents need to talk with their kids and encourage them to speak up if something is happening, Solomon said.
Bibb's Anti-Bullying Summit drew about 50 parents and family members, and attendees and district staff agreed the room should have been full. Parents need to be more involved in their children's lives and held more accountable, they said.
"It takes all of us," Officer Regina Johnson, with Bibb County campus police, said during the event. "If we work together, we can combat (bullying). The only way you can stop a bully is you expose a bully. You give them more power when you don't say anything. ... You keep telling someone until it stops."
The community has to work together to change the role of student bystanders in bullying incidents, Solomon said. Students are instigators if they laugh or cheer, but they can become helpful bystanders if they discourage the bully, redirect the situation, defend the victim or get help from adults.
"There is no way to completely bully-proof your lives," McGiboney said. "You're always going to have bullying, whether in school or work. But you can limit the impact if the bullying is acknowledged and dealt with quickly."
After a bullying incident is reported, there's an investigation, facts are gathered, the victim and bully are interviewed, and parents are notified. Disciplinary measures are decided based on the infraction and number of prior offenses, Stewart said. Students are punished if there is evidence that bullying has occurred, Hunt-Harris said.
Children found guilty of bullying could face in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, detention, parent conferences, loss of privileges, or assignment to the district's alternative school.
Cyberbullying can be hard to trace and track, Brown said. If it happens at school, staff will ask for proof such as text messages or social media posts. Outside agencies like the local sheriff's office may step in if criminal activity is involved or it happens off campus.
Families sometimes get frustrated with how a school system is handling bullying situations. Cassady said it's frustrating for the district too. Staff members want to help, but they must have proof of bullying and go through the process. That's why it's so important for students to report every incident.
Parents may think schools aren't taking action, but in reality, educators are watching, investigating and talking with teachers and classmates, Solomon said. Sometimes federal laws prohibit administrators from revealing how the bully has been disciplined, Adams said.
The district has focused on training employees about bullying, but Cassady said he learned from parents at the summit that more needs be done to reach students.