Online forms that allow students and parents to report bullying are helping officials at some suburban schools deal with a problem that's been in the national spotlight.
Grayslake North and Grayslake Central high schools, Highland Middle in Libertyville and the schools in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 are among those that have bullying forms on their websites, typically in prominent positions.
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They generally ask for the name of the person being bullied, the name of the bully, the location and other details. Some allow the forms to be completed anonymously.
The online tool hasn't moved the needle much at some schools. But the public response has been tremendous at others.
At Highland Middle, complaints about bullying have more than doubled since its form went up at d70schools.org/schoolsites/?school_id=4 in November 2011, Assistant Principal Lorenzo Cervantes said.
"We tapped into (another) layer of support that wasn't there before," said Cervantes, who helped launch the form as a dean of students.
That doesn't necessarily mean more incidents of bullying are being reported, Cervantes cautioned. He's seeing more people -- especially parents and witnesses -- stepping forward to tell administrators about the same incidents.
And that's just fine with Cervantes.
"I'd rather have 10 reports of the same issue than one," he said. "There's never too much information when it comes to helping a student with a social issue."
Online reporting forms have their critics, however.
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national group founded in 2005, said anonymous reporting could lead to false complaints or reports of behavior that's unwanted but not necessarily bullying. Additionally, the forms are worthless if complaints aren't thoroughly investigated, she said.
"I'm just not a fan of this," said Ellis, whose group is based in New York City.
What is bullying?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' stopbullying.gov website defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.
Additionally, the behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
According to the website, bullying includes:
Attacking someone physically or verbally.
Excluding someone from a group on purpose.
Most reported bullying occurs in school, according to the website. But it also can happen on school buses, in neighborhoods and on the Internet.
Bullying, particularly cyberbullying, has been blamed for several adolescent and teen suicides in recent years, as well as some school shootings.
According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, 20 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders experienced bullying.
The percentage grows when investigations expand to include younger kids. A 2009 National Center for Education Statistics report indicated 28 percent of sixth- through 12th-graders experienced bullying.
'The right direction'
Getting students to report bullying has become an important aspect of many schools' efforts to stop the behavior. Most require written or emailed complaints, but some have set up special forms on their websites to make the task easier.
"Every school has issues with bullying (and) teasing," said Megan Licht, the assistant principal of student services at Grayslake North. "I feel that we have put into place a variety of interventions and outlets for students to feel safe and more open to reporting."
The two schools' forms are identical. They ask for information about the person filling out the form, the victim and the suspected bully and details about the incidents that raised concern.
At Grayslake North, six reports have been made so far, all from students, Licht said. Numbers for Grayslake Central weren't available.
Name calling was the most common complaint at Grayslake North, Licht said. All six cases were investigated, but none revealed significant problems, she said.
Even though the response at her school hasn't been overwhelming, Licht hopes more schools will create online bullying forms.
"It is a step in the right direction to get the students the help they need and deserve," she said.
Not every reported case actually is an instance of bullying, Highland Middle's Cervantes said. Sometimes innocent or accidental situations can be misconstrued by people involved. But if a student or parent perceives there's a problem, Cervantes wants to get to the root of it.
"Even if it's a false report, they came up with that name for a reason," he said. "Every report we get leads us to some sort of social situation that could probably use some help."
So far this school year, the Highland Middle staff has received 20 complaints about possible bullying through the online form. They address more than a dozen different concerns.
In stark contrast, Cervantes has seen only one complaint delivered on paper.
He believes the online system makes it easier for tech-savvy students and parents to express their concerns.
"It's the most effective communications (tool) for our audience," he said. "We needed to reach them where they're at."
Mundelein High School began promoting an online bullying report form at its website, d120.org, about a year ago. It was the brainchild of Dean of Students Samantha Smigielski.
Smigielski previously had been a counselor at Carpentersville Middle School, and Community Unit District 300's website features an online report form. She thought a similar effort would be beneficial in Mundelein.
"Bullying is a behavior that is intolerable in the learning environment," Smigielski said. "Anytime that I can add opportunities for someone to report bullying without feeling threatened, it gives me satisfaction in helping those students."
Smigielski hasn't received any online bullying reports so far this school year. She didn't have data from last year.
District 300 doesn't limit bullying reporting to the website. The district also has a special email address and a phone number for people concerned about bullying, drugs, weapons and violence. Bullying can be reported through District 300's mobile app, too.
So far this school year, the district has received three bullying complaints via the online form, and all three were verified cases, said Gary Chester, the district's director of school safety. Some students might choose to make an anonymous online report to protect their safety at school, Chester said. Others might not want to reveal their names because they're afraid their parents might think they're weak.
Regardless of whether the complainant identifies them, every report is investigated, Chester said.
Group has concerns
STOMP Out Bullying's Ellis said online report forms can be great tools to help kids who are being bullied -- but not if the complaints are quickly swept under the rug.
"I've heard too many principals say, 'It's not bullying,'" Ellis said. "If (a complaint) isn't being investigated completely, then it's not working."
Ellis said she's refused to work with some companies that develop the forms because of her concerns.
"I want to see the schools take action," she said. "If schools are not doing anything about it, then it doesn't matter."
Highland Middle's Cervantes is aware of these potential flaws, too. Although the online reporting system hasn't revealed any significant bullying problems at Highland, he believes proper intervention and assistance can give students ways to deal with other difficult situations, even though they might not meet the definition of bullying.
Walking through a problem and developing possible solutions can be enough to help a kid out, he said.
"It's powerful for anyone to have the school care and listen to them," Cervantes said.