UNION COUNTY — For the third year in a row confirmed incidents of school violence, vandalism and bullying were down in Union County.
Last week the New Jersey Department of Education released the Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse in the Schools Report for the 2013-2014 school years, which are completely based on self-reporting by school districts. This year the reporting period went from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 and included several interesting reductions in the numbers.
“Our goal is to ensure that our children have a safe and supportive learning environment and I’m pleased to see a decline in the number of incidents reported by school districts,” said acting education commissioner David Hespe, adding this data is a critical component in promoting conditions that support teaching and learning.
Statewide there were a total of 19,167 overall incidents, or a 9 percent decrease from last year. To help reduce incidents, school districts provided 17,729 programs and initiatives to students, staff and others to reduce harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents. This increase in programs, the commissioner said, was “notable” compared to the 13,718 reported the previous year and the 8,760 reported in 2011-2012 school year.
School districts offered 14,473 training classes to staff, students and others related to the reduction of harassment, intimidation and bullying, a substantial increase from past years when there were 11,445 training classes in 2011-12 and 11,199 in 2012-2013.
Harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents involve any gesture, including written, verbal, a physical act or electronic communication, regardless whether it was a single incident or series of incidents. This includes any incident that occurs on school property, school sponsored function, school bus or off school grounds.
The report further explained anything that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or rights of other students, is insulting or demeaning to any student or group of students, creates a hostile educational environment, or “severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to a student is considered harassment, intimidation or bullying.
The report also found incidents of bullying tended to peak at the middle school level, with school suspension between two and four days generally the most common form of discipline. Remedial actions were also provided to prevent further occurrences. These primarily included conferences and individual counseling of the students involved.
While fighting was the most commonly reported incident of violence, this declined by 14 percent over the last three years. On the other hand, there was no sizeable change in reports of substance abuse from the last two years, with 76 percent of substance abuse cases in 2013-2014 school year involving marijuana use on school grounds.
According to Hespe, the police were only notified in 30 percent of the incidents.
The acting commissioner of education said that by the schools doing their own assessment, this allowed the state to see where there were areas in need of improvement. In turn, he added, the state can provide help to school districts by clarifying the self-assessment tests or providing guidance in applying the anti-bullying bill of rights.
Despite this, the commissioner cautioned that significant increases or decreases in violence and bullying incidents from year to year may not reflect exactly what is going on in schools.
Hespe said changes from year to year, either positive or negative, could be reflective of many things, including more accurate reporting from school districts or changes in school policies and programs addressing violence, vandalism, substance abuse and bullying.
“Changes from year to year require continuous monitoring to ensure that the NJDOE and local districts are progressing towards safer schools for their students and community,” he said.
Overall, the majority of Union County school districts fell in line with state statistics showing a decrease in incidents for the third year, with the total number of incidents dropping by 193 over the previous school year.
For example, in the 2012-2013 school year, there were 1,208 incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons, substance abuse and bullying, compared to the 2013-2014 school year when that number dropped to 1,015.
Specifically, there were 341 incidents of violence in Union County schools in 2012-13, but that number dropped to 307 last year. Vandalism incidents in Union County also dropped from 124 to 105 last year.
Weapon incidents, which refer to handguns, rifles or anything that can expel or be converted to expel a projectile by action of an explosion, also dropped from 85 in the 2012-2013 school year to 67 county wide last year.
Elizabeth topped the list of the most incidents in this category, with 32 in 2012-2013 and 29 last year. Linden jumped from 9 weapons incidents to 12 last year while Union also saw an increase, going from just three incidents the year before to eight last year.
Reportable substance abuse incidents stayed almost the same county wide, going from 172 to 171 last year, with Elizabeth claiming the largest number at 85 last year. This showed an increase over the 2012-2013 school year when there were 82 incidents. Linden also saw an increase, going from 21 incidents to 24, while Roselle went from 14 incidents to 13 and Union from 10 to 7.
The remainder of school districts had five or less incidents of this type.
The highest numbers for reportable incidents in Union County came under the category of harassment, intimidation and bullying. However, even that number went down, with a total of 527 incidents reported by county school districts in the 2012-2013 school year compared to 393 incidents in 2013-2014, or a drop of 134 incidents.
Only five school districts saw an increase in harassment, intimidation and bullying, including Kenilworth, which jumped from 11 incidents to 30 incidents. Roselle also saw an increase in this area, going from 15 incidents to 26. Hillside, while maintaining a low average of incidents in this particular area, had double the number of incidents from the year before with eight in the 2013-2014 school year.
While not a significant increase, Mountainside went from having no incidents in the 2012-2013 school year to three last year.
School districts showing great improvement over the 2012-2013 school year in reducing incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying was Union, going from 53 to 20, Cranford, 23 to 3, Linden, 37 to 24 and Rahway, 30 to 14.
Notable was Elizabeth with an enrollment of 23,988 students and just 148 incidents in the 2012-2013 school year, which this school district still managed to reduce to 88 last year.