SHELBY CO., Tenn. — Bullying in schools has become a hot topic in recent years. FOX13 Investigates took a closer look at State Board of Education data and discovered some trends across the Mid-South that may surprise parents and students.
In Shelby County, the reported bullying cases have been cut in half over the last five years. It’s a seemingly impressive statistic, but a bullying prevention advocate who spoke with FOX13 said those numbers may not tell the whole story.
“I’m going into the schools and hearing them say, ‘I’ve been bullied but nobody did anything about it,’” Lashundra Robinson explained. “Or they didn’t (seek help) because they were afraid nobody would believe them.”
Robinson is the executive director of UCAN, a Memphis bullying prevention initiative. That’s how Robinson met high school senior Denisha Greer, a bullying victim in Shelby County.
Greer loves theatre, wants to go to college and wants to be an actress. But instead of her focus being on her bright future, much of it is fixated on the past.
“I was at my breaking point because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself,” Greer told FOX13. “When people tease you and put you down… I was to the point where I just wanted to take my own life.”
The 17-year-old’s life has been altered by bullying – and unfortunately, her story is far from unique.
FOX13’s Leah Jordan crunched the numbers; in other major metro areas, bullying case numbers are on the rise.
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Knox County Schools saw a 743 percent increase in bullying cases over the last five school years, and Metro Nashville saw an overall increase as well.
However, Shelby County is different.
Public records reveal during the 2013-2014 school year in Shelby County, the district reported a total of 2,771 bullying cases.
FOX13 investigated numbers beyond Shelby County and compiled statistics from every Tennessee school district in the viewing area. CLICK HERE to see what your school’s bullying report numbers look like.
MISSISSIPPI AND ARKANSAS PARENTS, find explainers and bullying resources here.
The numbers paint a picture of a nearly-perfect decline between then and five years later: During the 2017-2018 school year, just 1,268 cases were reported.
On the surface, the numbers indicate bullying has been cut in half. Robinson believes we may not be getting an accurate report of bullying cases for multiple reasons, such as kids not being heard by teachers – or kids not admitting that they’re being bullied at all.
Robinson said the fact that the numbers are decreasing means her program, UCAN, is working – which is exciting. But she said it’s impossible to believe bullying cases have had that dramatic of a drop.
“Although the numbers are decreasing, which I’m happy about… (we have to ask) Are you actually telling someone you’re being bullied?” Robinson said.
FOX13 has reported on several stories where bullying victims say their complaints went ignored.
Most recently, in January, Keloni Grand shared her story of getting death threats at a Memphis high school.
“This isn’t the first occurrence of what happened,” she told FOX13. “Though it may not have been as serious, I’ve been picked on and bullied before and reported it to the principal, and this is not the first time he’s brushed it off his shoulder.”
Shelby County Schools has ignored multiple requests from FOX13 reporters regarding why Grand’s complaints went ignored, and officials have not offered any kind of statement or explanation. We are awaiting the response of an open records request involving the documentation of Grand’s complaints.
Jordan reached out to Dr. Alvin Harris, a Shelby County Schools district official in the discipline office, about the drop in bullying cases.
“From our office, the district’s office, I can say we’re just trying to push the education piece,” Dr. Harris said. “We do online training with officials. We do professional development with the school officials. If a school is having significant problems, we employ a team to craft a professional policy.”
Dr. Harris attributes it to education.
“The only thing I can say is we’ve been blessed and we’re doing a lot of educating,” he said.
After hearing complaints from students, FOX13 decided to show up at a public meeting on Feb. 7 to speak to the Interim Superintendent himself. Dr. Joris Ray said he wanted to hear more about Jordan’s concerns after the public meeting.
Afterwards, he walked away from her microphone with his colleagues who said he was late to another obligation. When Dr. Ray walked away from an interview opportunity, FOX13 got an on-camera interview with an SCS spokesperson.
She said just that morning, there had been a meeting with principals to ensure the reporting processes were being followed correctly. That spokesperson said she would send Jordan more information and documentation about that, but four days later, no phone calls or emails have been received.
While there’s no definitive explanation behind the numbers, there are people like Robinson and Greer who illustrate that there is hope and healing for bullying victims across Tennessee.
“When we first met her, she was very timid, very shy,” Robinson told FOX13. “Didn’t have a lot of confidence. We were trying to figure out what was going on.”
“I found new friends,” Greer explained. “I bond with a whole lot of people, teachers, staff. It’s like I found my voice again.”
On the morning of this investigation’s airdate and after seeing a promotion for the story on television, another SCS spokesperson emailed Leah. She said she wanted transparency within SCS, would look into Leah’s story, and will offer an on-camera response in the coming days.
If that happens, FOX13 Investigates will air a follow-up story and post it online.