INDIANAPOLIS — The number of reported bullying incidents is trending down in Indiana schools, according to the latest data.
But one lawmaker says the numbers can be deceiving, and he’s filed legislation to better protect students from bullying — especially those in private and charter schools.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, has filed House Bill 1185 which would require charter and private schools to adhere to the same bullying requirements as public schools.
Davey Combs is a freshman student at a Central Indiana public school, but when he attended private school, Combs said he was bullied repeatedly.
"At my new school everybody loves me now,” he said. “At my old school, they would say mean things and call me 'baby' and it didn’t make me feel good.”
By law, private schools do not have to report bullying numbers to the Indiana Department of Education.
Rep. Porter says that needs to change.
House Bill 1185 would require charter schools and private schools to adopt anti-bullying policies if they accept funding or financial assistance from the state.
"We can't continue to fund public education and then everyone gets to check a box and say they're exempt,” Porter said. “Public schools are not exempt, so why should charter schools, virtual schools and schools like that be exempt?"
Porter’s bill comes as statewide numbers show the number of bullying incidents reported by Indiana schools is dropping.
A total of 4,495 bullying incidents were reported in the 2019-20 school year, compared to 5,257 in 2018-19 and 5,604 in 2017-18.
Last school year’s numbers include March-June 2020, when many school buildings were shut down due to COVID-19.
"The flip side is they're not being bullied as much because they don't have as much contact with the bullies,” said Mindi Goodpaster with the Indiana Coalition for Human Services, who has lobbied for anti-bullying legislation.
Goodpaster anticipates bullying numbers will drop again for the current school year, 2020-21, as well.
"We are going to see lower number of reports,” Goodpaster said. “We may see an increase in cyber-bullying because now students are using virtual platforms. That's always been a tricky thing for schools to deal with virtual bullying related to their students but is not happening on school grounds."
Schools are supposed to annually report physical, verbal, social, electronic and combination bullying incidents to the Indiana Department of Education.
In its annual bullying report, IDOE says, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent closure of school buildings in March 2020, comparing data to any previous school year will not be an effective measure of trends."
"Even during the pandemic, schools are still required to submit data," IDOE spokesperson Adam Baker said.
Baker said schools will submit their bullying data from this school year at the end of June, and the state will publish the new numbers in August 2021.
"If a parent looks at a report and feels it's inaccurate in their school they should reach out to their district first, and if that's not resolved, they should reach out to us as well,” Baker said.
Porter’s legislation would also require schools that accept choice scholarships to adopt discipline rules that prohibit bullying.
It has been assigned to the education committee, and Porter hopes it will get a hearing.
“I'm hoping we can get some traction," said Porter. “It’s a simple bill.”
Prompted by a WRTV Investigation in 2018, Rep. Porter’s legislation was signed into law and improved how the state gets information from schools about bullying.
WRTV Investigates found schools breaking that law by misreporting their bullying numbers — in at least one case by more than 500% in a single year. The investigation also found that nearly 60 percent of schools reported zero bullying incidents, a figure Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) officials found hard to believe.
Combs, the student, hopes the legislation will better protect students like him, including those in non-public schools.
"I think that will be good for all the kids,” Combs said. “They'll be treated better."
The Institute for Quality Education declined to comment on Porter’s bill and the Indiana Non Public Education Association didn’t respond.
Records show some charter schools are already reporting their school’s bullying numbers.