Has bullying at Beaufort County Schools been getting ‘swept under the rug’?

Every day of school last year, Lindsey Battle’s son came home and begged her not to make him go back.

Tammy Chisolm’s daughter complained constantly that she hated her life and wished she were dead.

“It was devastating,” said Chisolm, who lives in Bluffton. “It made me sick to my stomach.”

Battle said she was heartbroken by what her son has gone through.

“I was at a loss as for what I could to do to help him,” the Beaufort mom said. “I really just felt helpless.”

Battle and Chisolm say their children were bullied by classmates physically and emotionally for months on end — and both say that telling the Beaufort County School District was akin to shouting into the void.

During the past five years, data reported by the district shows bullying incidents among Beaufort County students have plummeted — dropping almost 95 percent after former superintendent Jeff Moss’ first year with the district.

Yet interviews with a handful of parents, as well as recent reports from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and lawsuits filed against the district, tell a different story, raising questions about whether the district has been downplaying the issue.

Nationally, 21 percent of students report being bullied at school.

In Beaufort County, that number stands at less than 4 percent, according to district data.

The district’s low bullying rate could indicate that the administration’s anti-bullying initiatives are exceptional and have been producing significantly higher-than-average results.

It could also indicate that some bullying incidents have been going unreported by the district.

Either way, district administrators said recently that they expect the number of reported bullying incidents to increase starting with this school year.

They say software and “communication” issues have been partly to blame for the lower number, and that there is no correlation between the numbers dropping and Moss’ tenure with the district.

Moss, who has been accused by board members over the years of withholding data that could reflect poorly on him or the district, left the district in August after five years.

Jim Foster, spokesperson for the school district, said that Moss could not have influenced the reporting of data because “the superintendent doesn’t report the data; individual schools do.”

Based on Battle’s experience and what she’s heard from other parents, she said the district’s diminishing bullying numbers are “shocking.”

“To me, what I kept feeling like last year was that the administration at the school kept trying to sweep it under the rug,” Battle said.

Does bullying get downplayed?

Battle said her son, who was in third grade at Robert Smalls International Academy last year, was ganged up on by his fellow students almost daily. He was picked on for his appearance, slapped, tripped and told by classmates that they would “take all his friends away from him.”

Battle said she went to multiple meetings with administrators, her son met weekly with the school counselor and she advocated for her son to be moved to a new classroom — to no avail.

“They were doing anything they could to keep me quiet but it kept on happening ... There was never a solution for the root of the problem,” she said in a recent interview.

During this time, her son’s straight-A grades started to drop, and his outlook toward school took a concerning turn.

When administrators decided to take her son out of class each week to see a school counselor, Battle felt like they were focusing on the wrong child.

“I felt like they were singling him out by telling him to ignore it and stand up for himself when it was really the other students who needed the discipline,” she said.

After months, Battle saw little improvement.

In February 2017, she received a phone call from the school nurse who told her that her son had been tripped by a fellow student on the playground and had scraped both of his knees and elbows.

According to Battle, that was the last straw.

She filed a police report with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and withdrew her son from the school.

Battle was not the only one who felt the district poorly handled the bullying of their child.

Chisolm said her daughter, who was a third-grader at Bluffton Elementary school last year, was touched inappropriately by classmates on two separate occasions. After her daughter told her teacher, the bullying from her classmates got worse — specifically targeting her for her race, Chisolm said.

“She has always been proud of who she is and her color, but that was the first time she’d ever been embarrassed to be black or mixed,” Chisolm said.

Chisolm, who believed the bullies were not properly disciplined, said in a recent interview that her daughter was “put through emotional hell” and that administrators left her to “fend for herself.”

“They (school staff) just never did anything about it other than talk to a kid,” Chisolm said. “But you can only talk to a kid so many times. If they don’t respond the first time, they’re not going to respond the second time.”

When the school year ended and the bullies moved their attacks online, Chisolm decided to move her daughter to a different school in the district.

“I’m just now getting her stabilized again,” she said in a recent interview.

Foster, the district’s spokesperson, said he is restricted by federal privacy laws from commenting on specific student’s cases, but that bullying is “simply not something we ignore.”

Foster said the district always has two goals when it comes to bullying — to make sure students feel safe and secure in schools at all times and in events of bullying, to intervene, determine why it occurred and create plans and disciplinary actions aimed at improving a bully’s behavior.

Where is Beaufort County’s bullying data?

According to S.C. Department of Education data, bullying in the district declined by 18 percent between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 school years, which is the most recent data available.

Comparatively, data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights indicated that bullying in the Beaufort County School District declined by 95 percent between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 school years.

The Office of Civil Rights collects its data every other school year through a federally mandated survey, and more than 99 percent of schools comply with the reporting, according to the U.S. Department of Education

Beaufort County, however, did not not submit any of its data on harassment or bullying for the 2015-16 school year, according to data that was released in April.

Daniel Fallon, the district’s director of data services, said a new software system was to blame.

Unlike the S.C. Department of Education, which merely collects total bullying incidents, the Office of Civil Rights requires its data to be broken down into bullying based on sex, sexual orientation, race, religion and disability.

In the 2014-15 school year, the Beaufort County School District began using a new electronic referral system, which was not set up to allow teachers to explain the reason for a certain bullying incident, according to Fallon.

The system has since been updated, allowing for compliance in the future, he said.

Still, even when the district did submit its bullying data in previous years, the numbers were quizzically low.

During the 2013-14 school year, only six bullying incidents were reported across the entire 22,000-student district, and 91 percent of the district’s schools did not report a single bullying incident.

Prior to that, the school district reported 93 incidents during the 2011-2012 school year and 117 incidents during the 2009-2010 school year.

Administrators could provide little explanation for the significant drop, saying no district staff members who worked on the data collections prior to 2015-16 are still with the district.

Foster said that up until last year, one district office collected the bullying data and another office reported the data but now it’s done under the same department.

“There may have been some communication issues between those offices. It’s just kind of hard to say,” he said.

Foster declined to say which district employees were previously responsible for collecting and reporting bullying data.

Data submitted to the S.C. Department of Education paints a similarly optimistic picture about bullying within the school district.

During the 2015-16 school year, when the district said it could not report its data to the Office of Civil Rights, the district reported 60 incidents of bullying and one incident of cyberbullying — a 37 percent drop from the two years before that.

In 2016-17, bullying increased slightly across the district to 78 incidents, but the county’s statistic still remained lower than most districts in the state of similar size.

For example, the Greenville School District reported 459 incidents, the Charleston School District reported 183 and Aiken County reported 137 incidents.

A 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called bullying a “serious public health issue” in need of more detailed and consistent data collection.

Dr. Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and chairman of the committee that compiled the report, said collecting consistent data is crucial to helping administrators, principals and teachers understand how prevalent bullying is.

“Whenever you want to try to deal with a problem, you have to collect data to gauge how big a problem you have and if you do an intervention, (to gauge) if it is getting better,” Rivara said.

When asked what he thought about Beaufort County’s 3.5 percent bullying rate, Rivara said “it may be that the school district is doing the right stuff.

“… Hopefully that’s the reason the rates are low.”

‘A repeated, targeted incident’

When a bullying incident is reported within the district, either in-person or through the See Something Say Something app installed on student tablets, school administrators investigate the allegation and handle it based on the student code of conduct, according to Lakinsha Swinton, the district’s director of student services.

More than 1,000 tips were sent through the See Something Say Something app during the 2017-18 school year, according to the district. Those tips could include a wide range of issues such as bullying allegations, school threats and other matters that could involve law enforcement.

An administrator’s first step is to determine if an incident is credible and fits the definition of bullying, Swinton said.

“If it’s repeated, if it’s harassing in nature and if it’s targeted at a specific student, then it becomes a bullying situation,” she said. “A single incident like a fight would not be a bullying incident or a single rude comment would not be bullying.”

Swinton said the district is working to increase bullying education for students and therefore expects the statistics to rise.

“The expectation is that the more education you provide to these students, the more that they feel empowered,” she said.

Throughout the last three and a half years, the district has been sued at least four times regarding its handling of harassment and bullying incidents, according to online court records.

Two of the four cases, which were filed in the past two months, are still pending.

One case was settled for $6,000 in August 2016 after a 14-year-old Beaufort Middle School student was bullied and injured by a peer at school.

Another case was settled in March 2015 for an undisclosed amount. Online court records indicate a Battery Creek High School student and football player was bullied, hazed and assaulted in the school’s locker room.

As for Battle’s son, he is attending fourth grade at a different school within the district. Although it took time and adjustment, his grades are improving again and he is no longer experiencing harassment from his peers, she said.

After what Battle calls a “big stressful ordeal” for her son and family, she said she hopes the district improves the way it treats and handles incidents and victims of bullying.

“The county needs to address this rather than constantly sweeping it under the rug,” she said. “There are no real consequences for the students who are doing the bullying.”