Anti-bullying efforts credited with reducing violence in schools
School violence declined by more than 40 percent in Western Pennsylvania in 2010-11 from the year before, according to state data released last week. Incidents in Allegheny County dropped by more than one-half.
The decrease occurs even after new requirements upped the types of incidents schools must report to the state Department of Education. They include bullying, minor altercations and stalking.
"School districts are taking this seriously, and they are stepping up efforts, and they are dealing with students who are disruptive," said state Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller. He said efforts to improve reporting were aimed at giving parents a snapshot of safety problems in their school.
Schools report criminal offenses such as assault, theft, racial intimidation and weapons possession, ranking them according to the severity of the infraction. They report possession of tobacco products, bullying and students attempting or committing suicide. School districts also must report how many times they called police to their schools.
At Wilkinsburg High School, which has struggled with school violence, incidents were down 33 percent between 2009-10 and 2010-11. There were fewer reports of assaults on students and staff, reckless endangerment and vandalism.
"It used to be a pretty rough place," said Richard Domm, a chemistry teacher who has worked at Wilkinsburg High for 11 years. "A lot of teachers would leave because it was a rough environment. It's calmed down considerably since then. This is the best year yet."
The new data corroborates Western Pennsylvania officials' contention that new reporting requirements were to blame for an apparent increase in disciplinary infractions from the 2008-09 to the 2009-10 school year.
In that time, the state changed to a reporting system that defined incidents according to how police and school codes defined them, rather than having each school district do that.
Having a clear-cut definition of offenses and training on the new reporting requirements caused staff to be more diligent in what they reported, school officials said.
"I think it was a matter of, now you have the code, and you're using it and you're reporting what you see," said Velma Parker, who oversees Wilkinsburg's reporting.
Statewide, the number of incidents increased by about half of 1 percent to about 62,800 in 2010-11 from the year before. The number of incidents reported in Western Pennsylvania schools was 17,049.
The number of incidents involving police climbed about 10 percent in Western Pennsylvania to 14,053. Police aren't called all the time, just for the most severe cases.
In Allegheny County schools, the number of incidents dropped 51 percent to 11,509 in 2010-11, compared to the prior year. Westmoreland County schools saw a 28 percent decline in incidents to 1,159.
Many school officials point to their anti-bullying initiatives as a way to curb disciplinary problems.
Nearly all Western Pennsylvania schools use the nationally recognized Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. In addition to teaching students about how to identify and report bullying, it teaches students how to be good citizens.
"The philosophy is (that) when you shore up things like bullying and you teach kids the appropriate skills in classrooms, you alleviate the other problems like fighting," said Hillary Mangis, Carlynton School District's school psychologist and an Olweus trainer. "It teaches character education like: What is the thing to do when you're being bullied• What is it to be an empathetic person?"
Woodland Hills High School senior Molly Means, 17, said the anti-bullying program has made a difference at her school.
This year 25 juniors and 25 seniors are participating. They learn about types of bullying behavior, such as cyber-bullying, and perform skits at the elementary schools.
"It gives all the schools something to connect over," Means said. "I think ... it's another reason to take pride in our school."
Total incidents declined at Woodland Hills by 21 percent to 105 in 2010-11 after officials reported the number of incidents nearly doubling in 2009-10 from the previous year.
More serious incidents, such as a student assaulting a staff member or threatening a school official or another student, have dropped significantly over the past five years.
"The demeanor of the kids has changed," said Woodland Hills High School Principal Dan Stephens, who was one of several administrators brought in about four years ago to fix problems at the school. "It's a matter of the structures we put in place. Students know if they do 'A,' then 'B' happens and it's consistent. Teachers know that if they report, we'll deal with it."
In the past, Stephens said teachers wouldn't report fights because discipline wasn't consistent.
Franklin Regional High School Spanish teacher Jeff Stanczak, who heads up the school's bullying prevention committee, said although bullies and their victims are a small part of the student population, making efforts to eliminate bullying empowers students to report other things they see.
"If we can build positive relationships between people, hopefully it will bring a more positive feel to the school in general."