The most recent numbers show 28% of teenagers say they were bullied during the school year, that's 13 million kids nationwide.
But 64 percent of kids say they didn't report it.
(Sources: School Crime Supplement from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics as well as What Characteristics of Bullying, Bullying Victims, and Schools Are Associated with Increased Reporting of Bullying to School Officials? and Naturalistic Observations of Peer Interventions in Bullying.)
We know it's a struggle to find a solution, so we checked into the law too. The Wisconsin Department of Justice says there is no specific statute for bullying in the state law books, but there are about 46 that could be applied to those held criminally responsible, including disorderly conduct and battery.
Oftentimes, parents and school leaders don't agree. There are countless opinions and feelings involved, but the bottom line is, what can best help our kids? Where does the buck stop?
"I had a child who used to love going to school. He would do anything not to miss school. Once the bullying got out of hand he was pretending to be sick to stay home so he wouldn't have to face his bullies," says Jess York, a parent dealing with a child
14-year-old Tannor York is home full time now, attending classes from his couch through a virtual program.
His mom has been home schooling this seventh grader since February. "I shouldn't have had to pull my children out but I had no choice," Jess York said. She told us she's battled the bullying issue on behalf of her son for four years before getting fed up and taking the fight to Facebook. She modeled her poster after a dad from Kaukana who got national attention and about a million shares and likes for taking a stand in his status update.
"I reached out to him and said what do I do, I'm stuck. He's like, take it to Facebook you're gonna get negative and good. The good is gonna outweigh the negative but it's gonna wake 'em up and it's gonna wake people up and that's what I did," she says.
She put pen to poster board, knowing it would change their life. "I was like, Tannor, you realize once we do this there's no going back, he said that's fine, I'm tired of it."
Her photo hit our WEAU Facebook page and got thousands of shares, likes and comments. "What I wanted and what I want to happen is for people that think that there's not a problem to realize that there is."
Superintendent Chris Stratton with the Menomonie School District says, "it's very frustrating to see something like that on social media and it saddens me for the situation as a whole."
"They weren't taking me seriously, they weren't addressing the issue. I was done," York said.
Stratton could only say, "anyone who makes a claim that the School District of Menomonie does not follow up on bullying or ignores the situation when they occur, that is not our reality at all."
Menomonie School Superintendent Chris Stratton, and any superintendent for that matter, can't speak to cases specifically because of confidentiality rules. Stratton says that makes it difficult for districts to explain their side, the other side of the story or how they are dealing with it. She says they have an aggressive policy on bullying and investigate every report.
"We don't tolerate misbehavior, we don't tolerate bullying, we don't tolerate harassment," Stratton says.
Stratton says of the 1016 reports between the middle and high schools this year, only 43 have been found to be bullying or harassment.
She says punishment can range from suspension to expulsion, counseling and even getting law enforcement involved. She says her staff spends countless hours on the topic from investigating and mediating reports to preventing bullying. If you walk the halls of the middle school you see their core values. The principal says they started the school year educating their students about bullying and are working on boosting skills like empathy and problem solving.
The superintendent added, "they can control things that are adverse in their life."
So when parents and school leaders can't resolve the issue, who can? And why is it seeming to cause so much heartache these days? Has it gotten worse over the years?
Stratton has been in education for nearly 40 years and says she doesn't think it's happening more, rather, it's turned into a buzzword.
"I think society as a whole is more sensitive to it, I think that's a good thing that we're sensitive to it, but I also think we need to be careful to help our children understand what might be conflict and what they have to power to resolve and bullying, which is a situation where they need adult assistance."
Jeni Gronemus, a Licensed Professional Counselor with Sacred Heart Behavioral Health says, "I believe that we're more sensitive to it. I believe it's happening in different ways, I don't know that it's happening more."
She is a licensed counselor who has researched the issue. She says with social media and texting, kids can't escape it and there's no cooling off period. They can fire off a message instantly when they're mad, social media making it feel more prevalent. She and Stratton say when parents also weigh in on social media posts, it complicates the issue.
Gronemus says the reason it may seem like bullying is happening more now is because it's become an umbrella term, "we label it bullying where maybe it's not," she says.
So what is bullying?
"There needs to be an imbalance of power in order for bullying to be present," Gronemus explains.
Meaning a stronger versus weaker child, older versus younger, aggressive versus passive child and so on.
"It is not helpful for people to refer to every incident as bullying and to have children believe the incident is bullying," says Stratton.
Gronemus adds that kids can get stuck in the victim role, when she suggests they learn to become empowered instead.
All sides agree, society is more aware of the serious and sometimes deadly consequences of bullying, so parents say the fear of something bad happening is real.
York says she understands not every situation needs intervention. "Yes kids are going to be kids, but I want to emphasize this, what my son has dealt with, these kids are not kids being kids these are bullies being bullies and its a worldwide epidemic."
Gronemus says it's emotional for parents who want to spare their children from any pain. "It's hard to be that parent, and feel helpless you can't help your child or that you've tried everything, so find the resources, talk about feeling empowered, perhaps going to parents or an anti-bullying organization."
And that's where Jess York finds herself, at the center of a campaign standing up for her son and kids everywhere. "I personally know I'm not going to be able to stop bullying but I just want to make a difference."
So that leaves us with the big question: Where does the buck stop? What will make the difference?
We asked all sides.
Teens told me it takes parents, teachers, bystanders and even better laws.
Parents say it starts at home being role models, teaching kids how to act, and school leaders are key.
Stratton says, "schools can't do it alone, it takes society as a whole."
Gronemus says education on the issue is key, teaching kids how to build self confidence is important, and getting bystanders to take a stand also helps.
Statistics show 57% of bullying situations stop when a classmate intervenes.
"There's power in numbers. So if there's lots of people working together to address the issue to deal with it productively and effectively the better off we're going to be," says Gronemus.
Since taking her son's story public, Jess York has become an anti-bullying advocate who plans to march on the capitol in the fall in something called the Monster March, hoping to get the law changed and hoping to change things for kids like Tannor.
"What it has taught him is that he can stand up, that he can have a voice," she says.
To see part 2 of the investigation, with specific strategies for kids and parents, click here
For additional resources, see links in blue below this story
WEAU asked for statements from other stakeholders like police, Congressman Ron Kind and school leaders. Here are some additional statements on the issue:
FROM REP. RON KIND:
“School bullying is a real problem. In order to provide our students with the most effective and efficient learning environments possible, it is critical to ensure that they are safe at school.
“I have long been an advocate for safety in the classrooms and have supported legislation that would provide resources to prevent and prohibit harassment and bullying.
“But Congress can’t do it alone. Our families, communities, and our educators all have important roles in helping our students learn appropriate behavior among their peers. I will continue to do what I can to ensure that all kids have a safe learning environment, free from fear of bullying.”
FROM JOHN GAIER, DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR AT NEILLSVILLE:
"Solving the problem of bullying will take the combined efforts of all the adults who have contact and influence in the bully's life. That would include parents and educators. A consistent and ongoing anti bullying message helps. Consistent enforcement against bullying is also important, both at school and at home. Educating the victims and those that witness bullying on the importance of coming forward and reporting bullying behavior is another key to reducing the amount of bullying that might occur. Finally, making sure that the consequences for bullying are appropriate and meaningful will make a difference."
FROM JENI GRONEMUS, LICENSED COUNSELOR:
The majority of kids are bystanders to bullying behavior. It is important to educate these kids on ways to stand up and speak out (assertively).
Kids who talk to their parents on a regular basis are more likely to go to them when an issue arises.
Be proactive with kids—start early on by coaching them on how to respond to bullying behavior so they are prepared to deal with it when it arises. They’ll be more likely to stand up to it.
Bullying can have devastating effects. There is always going to be bullying behavior, but we can work together to decrease the negative effects by empowering kids to stand up for themselves, making it known that the behavior is not okay, and giving kids the skills to deal with it so they are prepared before they even encounter it.
The likelihood of further bullying attacks increases the more emotional a child becomes in response to the bullying. Therefore, it is important for the target to avoid giving a reaction.
Families can approach the issue with the stance of ‘how can we work on this together’—being a part of the solution versus part of the problem. Don’t just use social media as a way to draw attention to the issue—have a course of action and know what you want to accomplish ahead of time.
Seek support through counseling, advocacy groups, and being well-informed regarding policies. Get law enforcement involved as needed. It is always an option when there is harassment or you believe a law has been broken. Understand that it may not necessarily lead to charges.