The Palm Beach County School District reported thousands more incidents of bullying and harassment of students between 2007 and 2010 than any other school district in Florida.
But district officials say the numbers are not indicative of a growing bullying problem here. Rather, that they show district officials are taking the issue seriously.
“We’re knee deep in it and we’re trying our best,” said Kim Mazauskas, a resource teacher with the district’s Office of Safe Schools. “The numbers will go up when you address something.”
Palm Beach County schools, which teach about 172,000 students, reported more than 5,600 incidents of bullying between 2007 and 2010, according to data provided by the state Department of Education.
David Benson, the assistant director for safe schools for the district, said one of the reasons the numbers of incidents are high is that the district is following the state’s guidelines, including reporting all incidents of bullying even if the claim is unsubstantiated.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said the state sends schools guidance, but how the numbers are reported varies greatly. She said some districts might be reporting bullying as other crimes, such as battery or fighting.
For example Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which has about 345,000 students, only reported one bullying incident in the 2007-2008 school year and seven incidents in the 2008-2009 school year before increasing to more than 800 incidents in 2009-2010.
Calls to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Office of Safe Schools were referred to School Police Chief Charles Hurley, who did not return calls seeking comment.
Etters said that when the state Office of Safe Schools sees statistics that seem incorrect, they point out the issue and give the district a chance to change the numbers. But she said districts do not face any penalty for incorrect reporting.
Benson said there are nearly 200 schools, including all the charter schools in Palm Beach County, and there were about 2,000 incidents in 2009-2010, which works out to about 10 incidents of bullying per school.
“Our numbers seem much more realistic,” Benson said.
Mazauskas said the district has a website full of resources for students and teachers, such as scripts that guide teachers through how to respond to incidents such as cyber bullying.
Craig Goldenfarb is a West Palm Beach attorney who represents the parents of two students who are threatening to sue the Palm Beach County School District, alleging the district didn’t do enough to stop the bullying endured by those students at Jeaga Middle School and Seminole Trails Elementary School.
“At least they are reporting it here, which is good,” Goldenfarb said.
Jeaga Principal Kevin Gatlin said the district has made it easier for students to report bullying, such as creating “bullying boxes” where students can drop off anonymous complaints, as well as separate hotlines for each school.
Boca Raton Middle School consistently was among the Palm Beach County schools with the highest number of incidents. Benson, who used to be an assistant principal at Boca Raton Middle, said what that shows is that teachers and administrators had a good pulse of what was happening in the school and documented every incident.
Benson said the unofficial numbers being reported by schools for the 2010-2011 school year show a drop to 1,849 incidents.
“We are making progress,” Benson said.