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Survey shows little progress on bullying

FARGO — North Dakota has yet to show that it has turned a corner on school bullying two years after a law required each district to have a plan aimed at curbing the problem.

Officials say it will take more time for the law to show results in addressing the age-old problem of bullying, both at school and online, a troublesome behavior that has been creeping up in recent years, according to a survey.

One in four North Dakota high school students — 25.4 percent — reported they were bullied at school in 2013, and 17.1 percent said they were bullied online, according to a risk behavior survey.

Two years earlier, in 2011, 24.9 percent of high school students reported they were bullied at school, and 17.4 percent said they were bullied electronically, including social media.

In the first year the survey began tracking bullying, in 2009, 21.1 percent of high school students said they’d been victims. Electronic bullying was not surveyed that year.

“I think it’s going to take a while, because it’s a matter of a real culture and mind shift,” said Valerie Fischer, school health director at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “We still have a long way to go.”

The North Dakota Legislature passed a law in 2011 requiring each school district to have a plan in place by July 1, 2012, to address bullying, including a way for students to anonymously report bullying incidents.

The law establishes procedures and timelines for investigating reports of alleged bullying as well as reprisal, and requires notification of law enforcement when school officials believe a crime might have occurred.

Schools must have strategies to protect victims of bullying or retaliation and implement bullying prevention programs suitable for all students.

Each district has complied, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, but the law did not include a way of measuring the program’s results by tracking trends.

Lawmakers rejected a monitoring provision in the anti-bullying bill because they did not want to create a burdensome reporting requirement and did not want to interfere with local control, Fischer said.

That leaves the biennial survey, completed by schools comprising 84 percent of the state’s high school students, as the best measuring stick, she said.

“It’s the best we have but it’s not the best,” Fischer added.

Still, she believes schools throughout the state are engaged in addressing the bullying problem, and the efforts should show progress over time as a result.

“I think schools legitimately try their best,” Fischer said. “I think we can expect to see that (bullying) decrease.”

Educators take bullying very seriously, she said, because it undermines the safe learning environment at school and often leads to other problems for bullied students, including poor school performance and truancy.

“Bullying to us is a really big deal because it’s a gateway to every other risk behavior,” Fischer said. “So we really watch bullying.”

One of the most effective ways to prevent bullying is to teach students to intervene on behalf of the victim, said Allen Burgad, an assistant superintendent for West Fargo schools.

“It’s the bystander that has to intervene,” he said, adding that students are taught to speak up on behalf of bullying victims. “When a peer steps in and speaks up on behalf of a victim, that has greater influence.”

The same approach can be applied to curbing bullying online, which educators said poses a significant challenge because students with smartphones have constant access to social media websites.

“There’s no way adults can be at every corner of every building,” Burgad said. “The electronic bullying creates the greatest challenges for teens and even in the elementary level.”

David Burkman, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, housed within Agassiz Middle School in Fargo, said the most effective bullying prevention programs stress the importance of treating others with respect and acceptance.

“It’s better to set an expectation of how to behave,” Burkman said, with a positive message of “do show respect, do accept.”

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to