NASHVILLE - A first-of-its-kind state report finds 5,478 confirmed cases of bullying in Tennessee schools last year with 255 or 4.6 percent of them occurring in Hamilton County.
The Department of Education's Bullying and Harassment Compliant Report, required under a 2012 law, says 7,555 cases were reported statewide during the 2012-13 school year with 72.51 percent of the bullying and harassment confirmed.
Tennessee's public schools have more than 935,000 students.
Hamilton County schools, meanwhile, reported 345 cases with 255 of them confirmed. That's less than 1 percent of the nearly 42,000 students during the last school year.
Legislative sponsors of the law called the report "very, very alarming" as well as "sad."
"Besides the obvious emotional harm bullying does to a student personally, it also hampers the kind of classroom atmosphere that promotes learning," state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said in a statement. "This is a systemic problem that we need to address not only in our schools, but in our homes, churches, community organizations, on the ball field and elsewhere."
State Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, said the positive thing "this information is now coming forward so we can do something about it."
The report found bullying involving sex or gender discrimination accounted for 695 or 9.2 percent of statewide cases in which causes were identified.
No. 2 on the list was harassment involving "use of electronic technology." That accounted for 5.64 percent or 7.47 percent of the total where causes were specified.
There were 321 cases - 4.25 percent - involving race, color or national origin. Another 168 cases or 2.22 percent involved disabilities.
Of the 255 confirmed incidents in Hamilton County, the No. 1 category also identified involved sex or gender discrimination with 85 cases. No. 2 were cases involving electronic technology with seven. Five cases involved race, color or national origin. Four involved disabilities.
In two of the larger districts, Metro Nashville and Knox, none of the categories were identified. And in many districts like Hamilton, not all the confirmed cases' causes appeared to be identified. At the very least, subcategories often didn't add up to the totals.
Asked whether electronic technology involved not only social media like Facebook but telephones, Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said via email, "I don't think there were specific instructions that accompanied this report.
She said "districts might have interpreted this as pertaining to just social media, or telephone conversations also."
The report notes bullying is a specific type of harassment and in its "pure form" is "peer abuse."
Bullying's three "critical elements" are aggressive behavior that typically involves a pattern of behavior over time and an actual or "perceived" imbalance of power or strength, according to the report. And the situation isn't always black and white.
"Unfortunately, distinguishing peer conflict from peer abuse is not an easy task," the report says. "The gap between reported cases and confirmed cases of bullying," also seen in individual districts' figures, "reveals the need for additional community education."
But, the report cautions, with increased awareness of bullying "comes increases - and at times, overuse" of the term.
Continued education and training will aid students, administrators and the community "to accurately identify behavior as bullying, conflict, harassment, or simple childish behavior," the report says.
The state held three "trainings" last year and three so far this year with another three planned in the spring.
Declining to categories circumstances as bullying doesn't mean that a local system does not respond, the report says. Under federal law, cases "must be assessed for civil rights implications," the report notes." A reported civil rights issue may also be a bullying issue. And a bullying report may actually be sexual harassment under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, the report notes.
And the report issued yet another caution.
"Lastly, there is no 'quick fix' for bullying," it says.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.