(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
One of the many issues surfaced in Max Eden’s recent exposé on a New York City high school was how city officials’ insistence on keeping suspension rates down created incentives for lower-level bureaucrats to hide problems rather than address them. In an earlier report, he noted that under the DeBlasio’s administration’s new discipline policies, the NYC School Survey showed that “teachers report less order and discipline, and students report less mutual respect among their peers, as well as more violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity.” Despite this, DeBlasio declared that the city’s district schools experienced “the safest [year] on record.” What accounts for the disparity? The answer appears to be juked statistics.
In the wake of Eden’s exposé, many questioned how widespread this problem is. That’s a question researchers should set out promptly to address, but evidence from New Hampshire suggests that New York is far from an anomaly:
As told by schools’ self-reported statistics, the story of bullying in New Hampshire’s public schools is one of great progress. Since the signing of a landmark anti-bullying law, the number of incidents recorded by schools has dropped by more than half, from 5,561 in the 2010-2011 school year to 2,233 in 2016-2017, according to Department of Education data.
But advocates and state officials say those numbers belie the reality for Skylar and other students. More than a fifth of Granite State high-schoolers, for example, reported in a 2017 survey that they were bullied on school property during the previous year.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is administered annually to students across the country. Since 2009, the rate at which New Hampshire high school students say they have been bullied has stayed the same – between 21 and 22 percent – even as schools report more than 50 percent reductions in claims of bullying.
Yet again, it appears that school officials are working harder to hide incidents of bullying than address them:
The rate at which schools investigate students’ claims and find actual incidents of bullying has also dropped dramatically at the high school level. In 2010-2011, high schools confirmed bullying in 58 percent of reported incidents. Seven years later, it has dropped to 29 percent.
Some schools have put a lot of effort into stopping bullying, advocates say, but they believe the discrepancies in the data are evidence that some schools are exploiting weaknesses in the state’s law to under-report and underinvestigate claims of bullying.
The new spotlight on juked bullying statistics comes in response to two cases of student suicides over bullying in a state that has a smaller population than many cities. In both cases, parents argued that the schools didn’t do enough to protect their children from bullying.
Education officials in New Hampshire should work swiftly to correct perverse incentives and produce more accurate accounts of the level of bullying in the district school system, and schools should step up their efforts to combat bullying. In the meantime, bullied students should get access to educational choice options to provide an escape hatch from their tormentors.