For years, the Indiana Department of Education has tracked cases of bullying in schools and how students are disciplined through suspensions and expulsions.
But what the data show is open to interpretation.
The state's Student Safety Reporting law asks schools each year to report instances of bullying – verbal, physical, social/relational or a combination – by July 1. The law also requires school districts to list the number of suspensions and expulsions for things including possession of alcohol and weapons.
The idea, state officials say, is to use the information to provide an overview of how students act in school.
And while the instances of suspensions and expulsions are cut-and-dried, bullying data can be reported differently among schools and create an unclear picture of whether students in those districts are bullied more often than in others.
An example, said Northwest Allen County Schools spokeswoman Lizette Downey, is one case of bullying can be included in more than one category defined by the state – something that makes it appear there are more cases of bullying in the district than there really are.
“It's not a holistic picture,” she said.
The district reported 13 instances of bullying for the 2017-18 school year. Two years ago, 21 instances of bullying were reported among the more than 7,000 students at NACS, state data show.
Fort Wayne Community Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, reported dozens of instances of bullying this year spread among its elementary, middle and high schools. Most – 68 – were written or electronic bullying cases.
Eighty-seven cases of bullying were reported at FWCS for the 2015-16 school year, according to the state.
Comparing districts' numbers is difficult, and that concerns school leaders.
“The main issue in trying to compare schools to one another is there is not consistency in the reporting process,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said in an email. “Some schools may have better record-keeping than others.”
It's also up to students or parents to tell schools about bullying. So if cases aren't reported, they don't get forwarded to the state.
“It's really not an easy thing to track,” Downey said.
Education Department spokesman Adam Baker acknowledged confusion among some schools about how and what to report and said consistency in reporting has “been one of our struggles over the years.”
More schools are reporting bullying numbers, though, and that shows districts are committed to provide information about their students, he said.
Southwest Allen County Schools Director of Student Services Rachael Harshman said in a statement the district supports efforts to gather and track the data, but “reports of this nature generate a finite number but do not account for the infinite components and complexity of issues at hand.”
“The end result is just a number and is merely a snapshot of a much larger picture,” she said.
Data on bullying and discipline can be found on schools' annual performance reports, which are available here: https://compass.doe.in.gov/dashboard/overview.aspx
To find the reports, search for a district and select “annual performance report” from the drop-down menu under “accountability.”