A school-wide survey has revealed that nearly twenty percent of Grand County’s students do not report bullying behavior when they experience or witness it happening. School administrators say they will use this data in conjunction with other policy and programming efforts to address a “bullying problem” that they say leaves some students unsafe in Grand County’s schools.
The surveys — mandatory for grades four through twelve — attempted to gauge the bullying climate from elementary through high school early in the school year, according to Grand County School District Superintendent J.T. Stroder.
“We were trying to gauge before school started what students thought in terms of their campuses…and see if we could identify some weaknesses within the system,” Stroder said.
The surveys included five questions with multiple-choice and write-in answers, which Stroder says allowed students to describe bullying behavior as well as explain their responses to the behavior.
The surveys revealed that 60 percent of Grand County’s students have experienced or witnessed bullying but only 20 percent have actually reported that behavior.
“I felt this was the most significant on the survey; twenty percent didn’t report it,” Stroder said. “I want to know why they are not reporting. This one’s a little concerning.”
Former Grand County High School teacher Molly McClish called the reporting piece a “clear problem” that board of education members and district officials must look at more closely.
After her daughter Lily died by suicide in January, McClish says a “flood” of people — from students, to parents and district employees — came to her with their own stories about bullying in Grand County’s schools.
McClish learned her daughter, a student at Grand County Middle School, had been the victim of persistent bullying and that some peers repeatedly told her to “kill herself.”
Factors surrounding suicide are vast and complex, McClish said, and cannot simply be pinned on one specific event or experience. However, she feels the violent language used against her daughter by fellow students was the “tipping point.”
“Suicide is a complex mixture of factors ... [Lily] had the perfect storm of many layers of things going on,” McClish said. “However, I do believe [bullying] was the tipping point. The last thing she needed to hear that day was ‘kill yourself tonight — do it, do it, do it.’”
McClish heard stories from students too scared to report bullying incidents for fear of retribution as well as a general sense that “nothing is done” when and if they do report the behavior.
“Reporting is clearly a problem,” McClish said. “If people really want it to get better they have to be on top of reporting and on top of follow through.”
Through meetings and workshops over the past several months, McClish has asked school administrators and the Board of Education to evaluate policies and programs that could help curb bullying and create a culture of empathy in local schools.
Board of Education member Beth Joseph said focusing on reporting could make a significant difference when it comes to addressing bullying.
“If we’re going to try to use the data as the base line … if we can get the number of kids who report it up that would have the biggest impact,” Joseph said.
Of the students who did report the bullying behavior, Stroder said, many went to a teacher, parent or family member.
“Twenty-eight percent reported it to a teacher. That was the highest response rate,” Stroder said. “The second highest was twenty-five percent reported it to a parent. Some said ‘told my mom’; some said ‘a friend.’ Out of these responses, what we were able to interpret is the kids are clearly more comfortable going to their teacher more than anybody else, or any of the other options.”
Stroder said the district will look at developing skills and resources for teachers “to handle bullying at their level instead of just placing it on the administrator.”
“If only 11 percent [of students] are going to the administrator, and 30 percent are going to the teacher, that’s a pretty significant difference,” he added.
Although the survey makes clear that local students experience bullying, since such data collection began in 2013, Grand County has reported zero incidents of bullying to the Utah State Board of Education.
Stroder is unsure why those state numbers do not reflect bullying behavior in Grand County’s schools. However, he said the district is trying to improve data collection by creating a mechanism that focuses on incidents rather than reporting only “provable” cases.
“We want to actually develop a reporting system that’s an actual incident reporting system,” Stroder said. “A lot of times as an administrator you get a report that comes in, you go investigate it, and you can’t quite prove that it really occurred. I want a record of that actual investigation, whether it was proven or not … If [teachers] say ‘no I didn’t find any evidence of this’ we at least have a record that there was an incident whether it was bullying or not.”
This week, a district-organized survey goes out to parents to find out how they perceive bullying in Grand County’s schools.
“I want to get a gauge on what parents feel,” Stroder said. “It’s more of an open ended response for parents to say ‘this is what we see at this campus.’”
Joseph hopes that parents will take the time to fill out these upcoming surveys, noting that it’s incredibly important for the board of education to receive such data.
“The survey is our way of reaching out,” Joseph said. “[The bullying issue] is important on a personal level to everybody on the board. I think the struggle is just to get that data so we have something to go off of and start to make a game plan.”
In addition to the surveys, Stroder noted that the Board of Education has recently adopted five safe school policies, which include language on bullying.
And, he said that a professional development committee made up of school district staff is currently looking into bullying curricula and restorative justice programs for kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Helen M. Knight Principal Taryn Kay said that restorative justice “goes hand in hand” with decreasing bullying behaviors.
“I think it is powerful to encourage offenders to work to repair the harm they have caused,” Kay said. “The focus of restorative justice is on healing, empathy building and problem solving. When done well restorative justice allows students to heal from harm and restore and build healthy relationships. It is a way of being more than it is a program.”
Although the school district is working on various policy and program improvements to address bullying, board member Jim Webster called the issue a “community problem” that must be acknowledged by all of Grand County.
“It’s a school problem of course but it’s also a community problem,” Webster said. “The more we can engage the sectors of the community in this problem solving the better everybody’s going to be.”
McClish said she encourages Grand County to get involved in these issues, especially if community members feel passionately about the safety of their children.
“If you really care about these schools and you really care about making them a safer place, then you have to get involved,” she said, adding that the school community council is a “great place to start.”
“Lily’s life had value to me. And I know that everybody feels so bad after it happens, but you might not feel bad enough to take more significant action,” McClish said. “If the community cares about it, then they should call them and say ‘you need to be pushing forward with these things’ because it’s not going to get any better [without that].”
Contact information for the Board of Education can be found at grandschools.org/boardofeducation. The district can also be reached at 435-259-5317.