The state Department of Education on Monday released its annual look at incidents in schools involving bullying, violence, vandalism, weapons and substances, which includes drugs and alcohol, a comprehensive report based on data submitted by school districts.
Confirmed incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying dropped to 5,995 in 2015-16, down from 6,214 in 2014-15, continuing a decline that's happened every year since New Jersey implemented a strict new anti-bullying law in 2011. "We are committed to finding ways to build a safer school climate and culture for our students," said Kimberley Harrington, the state's acting education commissioner. "The data in the report can be useful in helping schools improve the learning environment for students."
The state deserves credit for trying to curb school school bullying, but bullying and violence remain underreported, said Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.
Many students don't have confidence that their schools will appropriately respond to their complaints, Green said. Since New Jersey's data is entirely self-reported by districts, the state can't possibly paint an accurate picture of what's happening in schools, he said.
"The New Jersey Department of Education has no way of really knowing," Green said.
Schools reported 12,024 confirmed bullying incidents in 2011-12, the first full year under the new bullying law. Some schools previously suggested initial statistics were inflated because of uncertainty about the definition of bullying under the new law -- a victim must have been targeted for a distinguishing characteristic and their chance to learn must have been substantially disrupted.
The state attributed the continued decline to an increase in training for schools and bullying preventing programs for students. School districts offered more than 25,000 anti-bullying programs or initiatives to reduce bullying last school year.
While bullying cases declined, violence in schools reached its highest point in the past five years, with 8,261 incidents in 2015-16, up from 7,262 in 2014-15. Opposed to the majority of bullying cases, which are verbal, violent incidents include fights, assaults, sexual offenses, robbery and threats.
It's unclear whether the increase in the number of violence incidents reflects a change in schools or is simply tied to better reporting, the state said. The report notes that the schools saw almost the same number of violent incidents, 8,252, in 2011-12.
Among the report's other highlights:
- New Jersey saw a slight decline in the number of weapons cases in schools with 1,000 in 2015-16, compared to 1,037 the year before. Knives, blades or other sharp objects accounted for most of the incidents.
- Incidents of vandalism (1,423) were up from the year before (1,359) but down from two years prior (1,561). Most cases were damage to property or theft.
- Substance use, possession or sale in school was more prevalent in 2015-16 with 3,010 incidents, up from 2,982. About 75 percent of cases involved marijuana on school grounds.
Overall, police were notified of incidents in schools 5,347 times in 2015-16.