Iowa launches new database for schools to report bullying

By Kyle Munson with the Des Moines Register

Iowa has hit the reset button on tracking bullying statistics in schools.

The Iowa Department of Education today launched a new database for schools to report and track bullying incidents in detail as they happen throughout the year. The state’s previous information-gathering on bullying, prompted in 2007 by a state anti-bullying/anti-harassment law, relied on just one annual set of reports each spring with far fewer data points.

Standards of reporting by schools have varied wildly. Educators and officials generally have agreed that the number of incidents statewide — 10,427 total reported during the 2011-2012 school year — represents a fraction of the actual bullying that either goes unreported by students or so far hasn’t been captured in state data.

Penny Bisignano, a Department of Education consultant, led a webinar today with more than 70 educators from around the state to train them on reporting in the new system.

“We would assume that the incidents would go up,” she told participants of how the number of bullying incidents — whether ultimately founded or unfounded — is expected to rise with more rigorous reporting.

Bullying has rated a hot-button national issue this year through a series of high-profile events and tragedies. Much of the documentary “Bully” was filmed in Sioux City; the suicide in April of bullied teen Kenneth Weishuhn Jr. in Primghar became a rallying cry for anti-bullying activists; and hundreds of residents gathered on the courthouse lawn last month in Marshalltown to launch a new community anti-bullying effort there.

Previously, bullying was logged by the state under just four labels: The incident was reported to be based on either physical violence, real or perceived sexual orientation, race or a nebulous “other” category. In the new database, school administrators can report bullying as based on one or more of the 17 student traits explicitly named in state law, including sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability and political belief — or some alternate factor that can be specified.

Each bullying incident also can include multiple bullies or victims, and each student’s unique ID number will be entered into the database. The state won’t be able to access student IDs, but districts themselves will be able to track their students who are repeatedly cited as bullies or victims, among other trend data.

Even if one of Iowa’s 348 public districts or 198 nonpublic schools has no bullying incidents to report, they will be required to actively click on at least one button to report zero incidents and indicate their participation.

The department, Bisignano said, is trying to “change the habit” of districts from annual reportage and encourage schools to use the new database more as an “information system” than a one-way upload to the state.