It's been three years since Florida passed a groundbreaking law requiring schools to do a better job of identifying and reporting bullying.
But the data collected so far indicate schools are falling short — and producing unreliable numbers.
For two years in a row, nearly half of the state's 67 school districts reported less than 10 bullying complaints to the state. And some districts that are reporting complaints aren't confident the data provide an accurate picture of what is — or isn't — happening on campus.
• Pinellas County reported 71 incidents in 2009-10, state figures show. But district officials say 1,113 would have been a more accurate figure — and even that's conservative since 41 schools reported no incidents at all. Officials said many reports were not finalized in a way that could be sent to the state.
• Miami-Dade, the state's largest district with 347,400 students, reported just seven cases in 2008-09. The next year, it tallied 802, the second highest in the state. District leaders say the first number included only cases that involved police.
The figures might sound like a simple numbers game, but to Debbie Johnston it signals a dangerous trend.
Her 15-year-old son, Jeffrey, killed himself in 2005 after three years of taunting and bullying. He is memorialized in the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, a law that requires Florida schools to identify, report and investigate bullying claims.
The law is praised nationally as a model piece of legislation. But the piecemeal data frustrates Johnston, a Lee County teacher. It means children are going unprotected despite a strong law authored to help them, she said.
"When you look at a school and you see they're not reporting anything, then we know they're failing," she said. "Teachers have a moral and legal obligation to know what is going on in their schools."
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The national spotlight on bullying is brighter than ever.
About 13 million students are believed to be victimized annually in the United States, a plight made clearer by the painful stories from across the nation of kids being singled out and harassed in school and on the internet.
Florida's schools recorded just 6,134 bullying incidents last year, suggesting that only fraction of a percentage of the state's 2.6 million students were touched by the issue.
Brooks Rumenik, director of the Office of Safe Schools at the Florida Department of Education, agreed the collected data are not giving a clear picture of the magnitude of bullying in Florida. But it is working on it.
"It's crucial for the adults to have their fingers on the pulse of what is really going on," said Rumenik. "We're talking about some potentially dangerous situations that kids can be placed in."
In Tampa, four Walker Middle School students faced adult charges after allegations arose that they had repeatedly raped one of their teammates in 2009.
In Palm Harbor, a 13-year-old brought several bottles of gasoline to Carwise Middle School in April, saying afterward he did so in an attempt to scare some kids who'd been bullying him. Now, the boy stands accused of stabbing a school resource officer who was investigating the source of the gas fumes.
In Odessa, a Sunlake High School freshman fatally shot himself in January. He, too, was characterized by family and friends as the object of bullies at his Land O'Lakes campus.
The push to eradicate bullying prompted President Barack Obama to host a White House conference in March to "dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up," he said.
In Florida, the numbers so far show that's easier said than done.
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The challenges with getting accurate data are multifaceted.
First, school employees must detect and take seriously any bullying complaints. By law, that means reporting it — whether or not the complaint ends up being substantiated.
But districts have interpreted what they need to report differently. And officials acknowledge that filling out the necessary paperwork has been confusing as they strive to implement the new law.
Hillsborough County director of administration Judith Rainone said she spent an inordinate amount of time at the end of the last school year backtracking and hand counting cases of bullying claims after the state changed the way it wanted districts to count it.
This year, Rainone said, the schools are prepared with a one-stop way to record the bullying investigations from the start.
Pinellas school officials said they are working to streamline their process, which now requires two different reports.
"Some schools are better at it than others," said Joan Reubens, who oversees bullying prevention for Pinellas County public schools.
Bay Point Middle in St. Petersburg and Carwise Middle in Palm Harbor lead the school district in the number of reported bullying complaints so far this year, initiating 113 and 88 investigations, respectively, according to Reubens.
At first glance, the numbers may seem alarming, especially compared with a school like Tyrone Middle, where only two complaints have been logged.
But Reubens said both Carwise and Bay Point have embraced an aggressive anti-bullying stance and procedure. They are among 43 schools using Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a schoolwide campaign that seeks to combat the idea that being a bully or a target is a normal part of growing up.
"When you teach and start to inform kids about what bullying looks like, it definitely increases the number of reports," Reubens said.
But even when educators do police their campuses for signs of peer harassment and abuse, getting those incidents counted at the state and district level can be dicey.
Madeira Beach Fundamental middle school principal Chris Ateek said he was surprised to hear last week that his campus showed zero claims of bullying for the 2009-10 school year — none recorded at the district level and none recorded at the state level.
Ateek said that while some reports of bullying are more difficult to investigate than others because some are anonymous, there is no question Madeira Beach staff has handled such concerns.
"Because something is not reported does not mean it wasn't happening or being taken care of," Ateek said.
In Miami-Dade, schools police Chief Charles Hurley said the district stands by its reported numbers, but emphasized that it takes deliberate time, education and planning to ensure no one allows a child to suffer alone at the hands of a bully. School administrators there say the push to eradicate bullying from the schools has inspired a sweeping campaign of public awareness targeting every staff member, student and parent.
"We look to change the culture in our schools," Hurley said.
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By law, Florida schools that don't comply with mandates to accurately count and report bullying investigations risk losing federal funds and, in some cases, could open themselves up to scrutiny by the Office of Civil Rights.
Johnston believes that if schools don't begin to do a better job of documenting and addressing such complaints early that they also will leave themselves open to legal action.
"I think more people are going to start suing their local districts about what is going on," she said.
St. Petersburg father Dave Bonacci has thought about it.
This spring, he and his wife pulled their son out of Shore Acres Elementary when they became concerned for his safety.
The first-grader confided to his parents that he'd been picked on repeatedly by two boys all school year. Bonacci only got wind of the situation, he said, after the boy got in trouble for hitting another child.
"He broke down," Bonacci said.
The school opened an investigation at Bonacci's urging, but determined the boy's situation did not meet the definition of "bullying" because the school could not find evidence of repeated troubles.
Still, the school offered to move Bonacci's son to a different class. School officials could not comment, citing student confidentiality.
Bonacci believes his son's teachers were aware his son felt picked on, but never reported it.
He is not sure "if a lawsuit's in order," Bonacci said. "For the most part, I want the School Board to know that we know what's going on and this is unacceptable: You failed my kid."
Rumenik, the head of the state's Office of Safe Schools, said the ultimate reason schools must do better at reporting comes down to the child.
"It is important for everyone to realize that these are not just numbers," she said. "What are they doing with those numbers? Are they using it to identify problem spots? … With bullying being such a newsworthy topic right now, it's in everybody's interest to do everything they can to take every step they can to accurately report those numbers.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or email@example.com.