I-Team: All school districts aren't equal when it comes to reporting bullying

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 06:00:38-04

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- Zoe McNeil couldn't sleep. She would cry on her pillow at night. She said it was all because of bullying.

It got so bad that McNeil, then 11, threatened to jump off the roof of her school. Within hours, she was hospitalized for observation. She was in the hospital for three days.

"I wanted to just kill myself," she said.

Once McNeil reached that state of crisis, the Fairfield School District provided great support, according to Cynthia Arnold, McNeil's mom. But before then, Arnold said the district was slow to address the reported threats of teasing.

"If (McNeil) had never made that comment, she would have still been bullied," Arnold said.

McNeil is now 13 years old. Fairfield Superintendent Billy Smith declined to discuss her cases or the district's response. In a statement, he said: "Bullying behavior by any student/school personnel is strictly prohibited in our school district. As a result, any bullying allegation brought forward is taken seriously and investigated."

In order to combat bullying, it's important to know when and how often it's happening. But not all schools are equal when it comes to how bullying is reported. 

"Bullying" can be tough to define. According to Ohio state law, it involves physical, mental or emotional abuse of some kind in a way that must be pervasive, persistent or severe enough to cause mental, emotional or physical pain for someone, and it has to happen more than once.

The definition of bullying is troublesome, according to Cincinnati attorney Carla Loon Leader. She said Ohio law created an unfair standard for bullying.

"If your child comes home after being beaten to a pulp at school, if that was the first time and this kid who did it had never done anything to your child, then that's technically not falling under the definition of 'bullying,'" she said.

In Ohio, a school district is required to publish the number of bullying incidents twice a year on its website, but the 9 On Your Side I-Team found many of those reports are hard to find, and in some cases recent reports weren't posted.

The I-Team showed Superintendent Michael Brandt that his district, Northeastern-Clermont, hasn't published its data on bullying. He fixed it the next day, and made other improvements to make it easier to file complaints.

"We don't take it lightly," Brandt said.

The I-Team also found a wide range of reported bullying by two of the area's highest-rated school districts. Mason Middle School had more reported bullying incidents than any other school in southwest Ohio. There were 82 incidents reported in just the first half of this school year. Administrators validated 32 that resulted in consequences.

Nearby, the Lakota District in Butler County, with 20 schools and nearly 10 times as many students as Mason Middle School, reported only three bullying incidents for the same period of time. Lakota officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

Mason Middle School Principal Tonya McCall was eager to explain the school's approach.

"If they are defining it as 'bullying,' we document it as that and then we take our time and investigate that," she said.

Only three of the 82 reported incidents actually met the state's legal definition of bullying, according to McCall. But by investigating every complaint, she hopes students and parents realize the school takes their concerns seriously.

"And for them to feel confidant that we have heard them and that we followed up and that there's going to be some resolution to the issue," McCall said.

For Zoe McNeil -- who just finished the seventh grade this week -- there's a renewed mission to report behavior she believes hurts other students, even if the law doesn't consider it bullying.

"I feel like I need to make sure that somebody hears me, so something bad doesn't happen," she said.

Resources for students and parents:

PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center

Ohio Department of Education