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Kristie Dennham was furious when her eighth-grade son came home last month with injuries from being beaten up at school. It was not the first time.
She describes her son “Bobby” (not his real name) as academically gifted, but smaller than most of his peers, making him an easy target for some of the bigger kids.
Since third grade, he has been repeatedly assaulted and tormented by a handful of other students — sometimes in school, sometimes at the bus stop, other times in the neighborhood.
This time, he was attacked in the gymnasium of West Middle School, where students had gathered before first period, in full view of other students.
“I think the biggest thing over all these years has been the emotional (impact),” she said. “You kind of start to see the light in your child's eyes go away, and you start to see them first of all not want to go to school, not want to go to social events.”
By now, though, Bobby had learned what to do in such events. When the bell rang, he went down the hall and, as he'd been instructed, ducked into the office to report the incident to the principal.
But, according to Dennham, neither the principal nor assistant principal were available, and Bobby was told to return to class. Later in the day, she said, he tried again, and again was turned away.
It was only after he returned home and Dennham learned what had happened that she called police and reported the assault.
Classic case of bullying
By the numbers
Nearly all Lawrence schools have made calls to the police, some more than others. Take a look at the interactive chart below to see how many calls schools have made and the reports that came from the calls.
Bobby's experience in school fits the U.S. Department of Education's standard definition of bullying: “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
The power imbalance can involve the students' physical strength, as in Bobby's case. But it can also involve access to embarrassing information, or a student's relative popularity. Bullying can involve physical abuse, but it can also involve harassment, teasing or inappropriate sexual comments. And in the digital age, it can also occur on social media, in the form of “cyber-bullying.”
According to the federal agency's website stopbullying.gov, victims of bullying often experience depression and anxiety, other health problems and decreased academic performance. And in rare cases they may try to retaliate through extremely violent means.
“In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied,” the department reports.
Since 2012, the state of Kansas has required all schools to adopt policies to address bullying and to report annually to the Kansas State Department of Education about all reported cases of bullying and how they were handled.
In the 2012-2013 academic year, the Lawrence school district reported 136 instances of bullying to the state, resulting in 37 in-school or out-of-school suspensions.
So far this year, district officials say they have received 42 reports of bullying, resulting in 19 suspensions. Final numbers will be reported to the state at the end of the school year.
Other criminal activity
Bullying is only one form of aggressive criminal behavior that occurs in schools.
According to Lawrence police reports, obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request, nearly every school in the district has called police multiple times over the past year to respond to incidents ranging from theft and drug possession to criminal assault and battery.
At West Middle School, there were 65 calls for service to police between Jan. 1, 2013, and Feb. 7, 2014. Those resulted in at least 10 reports being filed, including three for battery, two for theft and one for arson.
But by a wide margin, the busiest middle school in Lawrence for police reports was Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, which called police 312 times during that period, an average of more than once a day for each day school was in session.
The most active school overall was Lawrence High School, with 496 calls to police over the 13-month period examined. Pinckney School was the only building in the district that made no calls for police assistance during that time.
Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said it's difficult to draw conclusions from those numbers.
"There’s no standardized reporting mechanism across the district for when to involve police," Doll said in an email. "Our school administrators use their best judgment, and frankly, I support them erring on the side of caution and calling police about a concern that may turn out to be nothing."
Responding to bullying and violence
Under school district policy, students and parents are encouraged to report bullying, either informally or through a written complaint form that is available in the office of each building.
School officials are generally barred from commenting about personal matters involving individual students. But district officials did discuss some of the policies and programs they've initiated to deal with school climate issues.
Liberty Memorial principal Jeff Harkin said his staff also began taking proactive measures this year to discipline problems and improve the school climate.
“Over the summer, we looked at the discipline data and we were seeing we had too many kids spending time outside the classroom, either in in-school suspension or a former placed called the time-out room,” Harkin said.
So this year, Liberty Memorial began a program called STOMP – Self-control; Optimistic, Motivated, Prepared – which clearly spells out expectations for student behavior and offers positive rewards, in the form of STOMP Money, that students can use to buy privileges, or even school supplies.
So far this year, he said, office referrals are down 70 percent, and the suspension rate has been cut in half.
“I'm proud of the whole building,” Harkin said. “We're shocked by how well kids took to this and how well the staff has implemented it.”
At West Middle School, principal Myron Melton said his staff has also taken a proactive approach to prevent bullying, using the first-period advising classes to lead discussions about what bullying is and how all students, including bystanders, can help prevent it.
“I really feel like the important piece is the students have to feel connected to the school, like they're part of the community, and there are adults in the building they can confide in,” Melton said. “We do a lot of training in how to go about doing that.”