More than one hundred public schools in Western New York – about one-fourth of all schools in the region -- did not report a single incident of harassment or discrimination during the 2013-14 school year, reflecting a wide discrepancy in data collected under a new state anti-bullying law.
The Dignity For All Students Act (DASA), which took effect in 2012, implemented a string of reforms within school buildings, one of which has required schools to report incident data to the New York State Education Department during the past two school years.
Last year, 109 of the 403 schools in the eight Western New York counties made zero reports under the Dignity Act, according to data released by the State Education Department in late January. In some cases, entire school districts filed zero reports across the board in all of their schools.
Statewide, the majority (51.4 percent) of the more than 4,000 schools reported zero incidents. The Yonkers School District, which enrolls more than 26,000 students across 39 schools downstate, also combined to file zero reports.
Dr. Amanda Nickerson, the Director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, has yet to study the data because she finds it so unreliable.
"It would be extremely unlikely," Nickerson said, "that a school would have zero incidents."
Look up how many incidents each WNY school district reported
A closer look at the data reveals that more than half of Western New York's schools self-reported five or fewer incidents of harassment and discrimination to the state under the Dignity Act.
In a brand-new addition to DASA in 2013-14, the state also required schools to specifically report instances of cyber-bullying in a separate database. More than 60 percent of Western New York schools filed zero reports in this section.
2 On Your Side requested an interview with the New York State Education Department about the enforcement of DASA, particularly to inquire about the reporting system. A spokesperson declined that request, but he issued a statement claiming the department is "reviewing the implementation of the new DASA reporting procedures for schools this year."
The state defines harassment and bullying as "the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by threats, intimidation, or abuse, including cyber-bullying." To qualify under this category, an incident would need to interfere with a student's academics, threaten a student's physical safety or severely threaten his or her emotional well-being, which could include harassment about race, weight, disability, religion, sexual orientation or several other categories. Although any student, parent or faculty member can file a complaint with the school, an internal investigation must deem the incident serious enough to rise to a "material" level before reporting to the State Education Department.
That definition of "material" could be open to loose interpretation. Still, the numbers seem to contradict surveys conducted by professionals like Nickerson, who said one in three students report involvement in some form of bullying.
"When you look at those prevalence rates, and then you look at a report of zero for incidents of discrimination and harassment, it doesn't make sense," Nickerson said. "It doesn't add up."
Districts Without Reports
The Tonawanda City School District, which serves more than 1,800 students across four schools, fell in this category of zero reports under the Dignity Act.
Superintendent Dr. James Newton said the district filed a combined nine reports under a separate state database known as the Violence and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR). According to the state's data, the district filed these reports under the "Intimidation, Harassment, Menacing or Bullying Without a Weapon" section.
The Dignity Act requires schools to report "in combination" with VADIR, if applicable.
"We are checking the data, because there are some questions in the VADIR report that should be carried over to the DASA report. So we're making sure that did happen," Newton said. "And if it didn't happen, then we have to make sure that is corrected."
It's not as though the Tonawanda City School District has ignored the topic of bullying. In fact, just last week, Newton trained 40 middle school teachers as a part of an anti-bullying initiative.
The district is in the process of implementing the popular and internationally renowned Olweus Bullying Prevention Program by September.
"We definitely take it seriously," Newton said. "When someone is bullying, a lot of times, the bystanders will support the bully. Our goal is to make sure the bystanders will support the victim."
Other districts without any DASA reports in 2013-14 included: Alfred-Almond and Canaseraga in Allegany County, Ripley, Sherman, Fredonia and Forestville in Chautauqua County, Holland in Erie County, Royalton-Hartland and Wilson in Niagara County and Perry in Wyoming.
In suburban Erie County, the Grand Island Central School District self-reported six combined incidents in its five schools in 2013-14, attributing the relatively low numbers to "the success of the many programs that are in place in our schools." In an email, Superintendent Teresa Lawrence said the district changed its Code of Conduct and added training programs in compliance with the Dignity Act. Three Grand Island schools filed zero reports with the state under DASA.
The Williamsville Central School District, the largest suburban district in Western New York with more than 10,000 students, filed numerous reports in some schools and zero in others. Heim Middle School, Mill Middle School and Transit Middle School all filed more than 20 reports with the State Education Department.
Six Williamsville schools reported zero incidents in 2013-14, including Williamsville East High School. Williamsville North filed one report. Both high schools enroll more than 1,000 students.
The Lackawanna City School District, with an enrollment of more than 1,700 students, reported three combined incidents across its four schools. All reports came from Lackawanna Middle School. Three other schools reported zero incidents.
The Lancaster Central School District made 21 reports in seven schools. John A. Sciole Elementary did not have any reports. Lancaster High School, with an enrollment near 2,000, reported five material incidents.
Buffalo Public Schools
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Buffalo Public Schools overwhelmingly occupied the top of the list for incident reports. Of the 10 schools with the most reports, seven were Buffalo schools.
PS 66 North Park Academy, a middle school with an enrollment of 330, reported the most incidents in Western New York in both 2012-13 (222) and 2013-14 (179). In 2012-13, it had more reports than any other school in the state, and in 2013-14, it ranked fifth in the state.
Dr. Will Keresztes, the Associate Superintendent for the Buffalo Public Schools, said the district took an aggressive approach to PS 66, which has resulted in a significant drop in incidents during the current 2014-15 school year. Internally, the school tallied 40 reports during the first semester, putting it on pace to finish with fewer than half of the incidents recorded last year.
"I think it shows that in Buffalo, we're one of the few districts in the state that's actually reporting this information consistently," Keresztes said. "I think it's obvious, looking at the report, that other districts are choosing to not report this information. It's not possible, for example, you could have an elementary school with 800 kids, and have one or two incidents of bullying in the entire school year."
Nobody feels the impact of bullying more than Tim and Tracy Rodemeyer, the parents of Jamey Rodemeyer. He committed suicide three and a half years ago as a result of relentless harassment, during his freshman year at Williamsville North. Since then, the Rodemeyers have traveled the country and appeared on national news programs, emerging as some of the leading voices for anti-bullying campaigns in Western New York and beyond.
Working closely with schools and districts, they found a particularly strong commitment from the Buffalo Public Schools, specifically Lorraine Elementary in South Buffalo.
"Within the first six months of Jamey, they were the most outstanding," Tracy Rodemeyer said. "They live and breathe about anti-bullying."
Lorraine Elementary filed 87 incident reports under the Dignity Act, according to the 2013-14 data.
"The thing with Lorraine Elementary, is the teachers are passionate about it, and the parents are passionate about it," Tim Rodemeyer said. "And they really work to be a bully-free school."
The Rodemeyers described the school's various fundraisers, programs and "Bully-Free Friday" initiatives, which they believe makes Lorraine Elementary a "pioneer" in this subject.
In comparable urban districts elsewhere in the state, nine schools in the Rochester City School District and 18 schools in the Syracuse City School District did not file any incident reports under DASA. However, the two schools with the most reports in the state in 2013-14 came from Rochester's East High School (602 reports) and Syracuse's Westside Academy (316 reports).
In comparison, in Buffalo, only PS 84 Health Care Center for Children at ECMC, a special needs school consisting of fewer than 200 students, filed no reports of harassment or discrimination.
VADIR versus DASA
The variation in DASA reporting mirrors the complaints about VADIR, which schools have been mandated to use for more than a decade. The database mostly covers crime and violence within schools. Last month, an audit criticized VADIR for chronic underreporting.
As Newton noted with regard to with the Tonawanda City School District, VADIR includes a similar category to DASA for harassment without a weapon. However, an even larger percentage of Western New York schools – about one-third – filed zero reports in this section as well.
As a whole, Nickerson finds VADIR just as unreliable.
"I have been looking at VADIR for several years now, and I've seen the same trend, were there's some schools and districts that have numerous incidents, and some that have zero all across," Nickerson said.
Unlike VADIR data, which can punish schools by classifying them as "persistently dangerous," there is no penalty for reporting under the Dignity Act.
ANOTHER EXTRA: See VADIR and DASA reports from previous years at this link.
"I think, in an ideal world, a school would look at these data, not only annually, but hopefully more frequently, and say, what are the patterns that we are seeing? Are these particular students?" Nickerson said. "Are they particular protected classes? Where are they happening? How are we responding? What are we seeing over time?"
Nickerson mentioned the Buffalo Public Schools as an example of a "proactive" school district, noting that the district implemented DASA even before the state mandated its implementation.
Certainly, the socioeconomic makeup of the Buffalo Public Schools presents different circumstances. Still, Nickerson rejected the notion that the demographics of an urban district like the Buffalo Public Schools would lead to more bullying reports.
"[Bullying] doesn't really know socioeconomic bounds, or urban versus suburban," Nickerson said. "When we're talking about some of these behaviors and these incidents, I don't think it's accurate to say, 'well, we just don't have that here.'"
"Because these things happen. Everywhere."
Nickerson said districts could face challenges because the state essentially created DASA as an "unfunded mandate." In addition to the data reporting, the Dignity Act also changed policies, enhanced training and demanded that each school designate a Dignity Act Coordinator in each building.
"We've actually been collecting data here at our center on it, and in a nutshell, what we've found is that schools that are implementing the practices that are consistent with the Dignity For All Students Act, are more likely to have more positive school climates," Nickerson said.
However, Nickerson has examined school conditions over time – both before and after the Dignity Act took effect. She did not find much difference over time, meaning although she found a clear correlation between DASA implementation and positive effects in schools, it's difficult to assess whether the Dignity Act specifically caused those improved conditions.
"I would venture to say that it's making some impact-- that we're definitely more aware of the issues, trying to be more proactive, preventative and also take things very seriously," Nickerson said. "But I think it's a difficult issue, and we still have a long way to go."
Photographers Scott May, Terry Belke, Mike Luksch and Bill Boyer contributed to this report. Interactive elements built by Eric Morrow.