Stopping Bullies: The investigation process inside New Hanover Co. schools

Stopping Bullies: The investigation process inside New Hanover Co. schools
400 bullying investigations took place in the 2013-2014 school year. (Source: WECT)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - "As a dad, I was hurt. Nobody, wants to see their kid hurt," said Jared Payton, whose daughter goes to New Hanover County Schools. Payton said his daughter was 10 when she was bullied. "Friends ganging up on her, harassing, nudging her, pushing her."

"Anytime a child perceives they are being bullied, [we] take that very seriously," said Judy Stubblefield, the Bully Prevention Coordinator for New Hanover County Schools. Trained staff investigate each and every bullying report that comes in.

"Most campuses have anywhere from three to five bullying investigators, but there are investigators on every campus in New Hanover County Schools," Stubblefield said.

Staff members, teachers, parents or students can report bullying by filling out a reporting form and turning it in. The form is available on the New Hanover County Schools website. There is a form specific for students: and another for parents, teachers or staff:

"They tell us what is basically happening, who is involved, where is it happening, when is it happening and they sign off on it," said Tara Freeman, a bully investigator in the school system. Once the reporting form is turned into the front office, the clock starts ticking.

"We have 72 hours to initiate the investigation," Stubblefield said.

The investigations are time consuming and thorough. Each investigator interviews anyone and everyone involved, including the victim, the accused, bystanders, witnesses and teachers.

"Talking to the teachers is just invaluable, because they can add things they have noticed in the classrooms that they didn't put together before," Glenda Gaulker, an investigator said. "So, sometimes when all of the pieces of the puzzle come together you see something that you might not see otherwise."

Investigators try to keep the reports confidential, so the accused bully does not know who they are coming from. At the end, they determine if the incident is in fact considered bullying.

"You would be surprised, through those investigations, you usually can get a big picture for what is going on," Freeman said.

To be confirmed as bullying there has to be a pattern of two or three incidents and an imbalance of power.

"You feel like you are on the other side of the teeter totter and you can't get off," Chris Hanson explained.

The highest number of bullying investigations happen in middle schools, particularly the seventh grade," said Stubblefield. "In high school, most of the investigations are happening in the ninth grade."

Of the 245 investigations this fall, only 79 were confirmed cases of bullying and 27 were confirmed cases of harassment

Last school year, there were 400 bully investigations in New Hanover County Schools, with only 148 confirmed cases of bullying, and 44 confirmed cases of harassment

"Our percentages of confirmed bullying are somewhat low compared to our reporting and the investigations that are done," Stubblefield said. "That's really a good thing. Schools with high reporting tend to have lower incidents of fighting and aggressive behavior, because students are still asking for adult help."

"I air on the side of caution," said Tara Freeman of her reporting and investigations. "If I hear anything from a teacher, sometimes they aren't saying to, but I go ahead and write it up as [a bullying report]. Just so I can establish those patterns."

Completed reports are turned into an administrator, like Deanna Leake, the Assistant Principal at Murray Middle School. Leake said if the investigation confirms bullying took place, what happens next varies case by case.

In every case they will meet with the victim at least twice.

"We do mediation. We'll do counseling. We try to teach them strategies for coping with these things - how to effectively and appropriately advocate for themselves," Leake said.

She said they also meet with the bully at least twice.

"Typically those students who are involved in bulling are experiencing difficulties on their own. Whether difficulties at school or at home, socially with their peers or with their families, so we try to get to the root of the problem," Leake explained.

Schedules can be changed and as far as consequences go, "While, they are punitive in nature," Leake said, "we try to make them corrective in nature. Our main angle is to correct the behavior."

Even if it is not bullying, Freeman said staff still handle the situation and try to prevent it from happening again. They will follow up and even counsel both the victim, to show them support, and the accused.

"Sometimes we check that box as not bullying because it was not repeated. Even though the behavior was bad and it was intended to hurt," Gaulker said. "We will take that opportunity to put it down as a warning and then we will do some education with the person that was bothering the victim and help explain to them to develop some empathy skills."

If it is not bullying, Denisha Hagan, a bully investigator said it is usually considered a conflict.

"[A conflict] is usually a one time situation, or it's a back and forth thing. When it's back and forth that means no one person has more power over the other," Hagan said.

"Let's say two kids were friends and one got invited to another friends birthday party and the other didn't. The next day at school the one who got invited to the party is talking to her new friends and the other friend says, 'Why didn't I get invited?' and they get into a disagreement. That's usually a conflict," explained Stubblefield. "It becomes bullying, if that friend or group of friends start to tease, taunt and embarrass the other student."

Jared Payton says all the meetings made a difference for his daughter.

"They talked it out, if they had certain issues, and they had a plan to try to smooth out the situation," said Payton. His daughter ended up moving to a different classroom.

"She is happy," Payton said. "She is doing better than ever, and I feel like they cared."

Other options available to students include what's called a stay away agreement. That is where both students agree to stay away from each other while on school grounds from the start of the day to the end of the day.

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