The December 2011 suicide of Cheatham County teenager Jacob Rogers prompted an anti-bullying community push, which in turn spurred state lawmakers to toughen the state code and request better statewide data. - Submitted
Tennessee's first statewide count of school bullying incidents found 5,478 cases last school year, shocking the lawmaker who asked for the study.
The Department of Education report turned up 7,555 reports of bullying. Investigations confirmed acts of bullying in 73 percent of reports.
Read the state reports:
"The numbers, they're quite shocking," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro. "I was thinking there'd be less than a thousand reports of bullying captured. Over 5,000? That's huge. And that's just what was reported."
Ketron and Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, passed legislation requiring the statewide study in 2012 in the wake of two high-profile bullying-related student suicides in Middle Tennessee.
"Nobody had ever captured that data," Ketron said.
Ketron, saying that bullying impacts students, hampers learning and reaches beyond classrooms into the communities, said he wants the data to spur districts to examine the effectiveness of their bullying policies.
An often-cited national study of bullying found that more than 7 million teenagers, or 28 percent of students, reported being bullied at school in the 2008-09 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The report did not tally incidents by state. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education found 46 states had anti-bullying laws.
Middle Tennessee school districts reported a wide range of incidents. Davidson County reported 923 cases, with 812 confirmed after investigation. Some districts substantiated a small fraction of reports. For example, Robertson County had 193 allegations and 13 confirmed cases of bullying. Williamson County logged 50 reports and substantiated 11 cases.
Sex, gender targeted
Among the types of bullying found, 695 cases concerned sex or gender-based discrimination -- more than any other category highlighted in the report.
The sex and gender number caught the attention of the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Tennesseans.
"We think the numbers speak to the need for further reforms," said TEP Executive Director Chris Sanders.
He said the numbers may bolster the case for pending legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity -- as well as disability and appearance -- to the state's anti-bullying law.
The suicides of two gay Tennessee teens who were bullied brought a flash of attention to the subject. In December 2011, Cheatham County High School senior Jacob Rogers, 18, killed himself after incidents of bullying and other personal struggles. A month later, Gordonsville High School eighth-grader Phillip Parker Jr., 14, killed himself. Family members said he was bullied because he was gay.
Ketron said the Rogers tragedy, which spurred students and community members to propose anti-bullying plans in Cheatham County, was among incidents that spurred him to propose new legislation and the report.
But time has passed and he said he doesn't want awareness to wane.
"Now we go back and talk to the (education) commissioner, who wasn't here at the time, and talk to them, and see if they can start working with all the (districts) across the state," he said.
The report -- a brief six pages, plus a district-by-district database -- advocates for more training for school staff, noting there is no "quick fix" for bullying.
But Sanders said the report is a start.
"There's no way we can get better in Tennessee without really looking at the numbers," he said. "That's a lot of cases. And it may even be higher, because students may not always feel they can report a bullying incident."
The new report also counts 564 cases of bullying carried out through electronics. After some controversy over the wording of the bill, the 2012 legislation toughened the state law against cyberbullying.
The report, which arrived amid National Bullying Prevention Month, found that all districts satisfied state laws on logging and reporting bullying incidents.
The Department of Education did not immediately provide a comment.
Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tgonzalez.