Is your school following Michigan's anti-bullying law? Probably not.

Rachel Greco
Lansing State Journal

Had Matt Epling, 14, survived being bullied in eighth grade he would be 31 today. He ended his own life in 2002, the summer before he was to begin his freshman year at East Lansing High School.

Matt Epling

His father, Kevin Epling worked for nearly a decade after Matt died to get state laws on the books that would prevent another tragic death. Today he's an anti-bullying advocate who speaks directly to students about the damage bullying inflicts. He counsels parents when they reach out to him looking for help when their kids are bullied in schools around the state.

Nearly two decades after Matt's death, Epling is still working with legislators to strengthen anti-bullying laws in Michigan.

Epling was deeply frustrated when he read about the recent death of Michael Martin, a Lansing schools eighth grader. Michael, 13, died in January after taking his own life, two months after his mother began pleading with staff at Lansing’s Everett High School for help with bullying he was struggling with.

"It is very frustrating that we have spent time, energy, trying to get people to understand this is a much bigger problem than just addressing incidents as one-off issues," Epling said. "I think that’s the problem. Schools wait until something happens.”

Bully prevention advocate Kevin Epling speaks about the issue of bullying during an anti-bullying event on Friday, May 3, 2019, at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills. Kevin's son, Matt, was bullied and took his own life in 2002 at the age of 14.

Epling doesn’t believe school districts are following the Matt Epling Safe School Law. It includes requirements that school districts implement anti-bullying policies that include a process to investigate reported incidents and that they inform school boards of the scope of those incidents every year. 

A State Journal investigation of 18 Lansing area school districts shows most aren’t:

► Only two of the 18 school districts are informing elected school board members of the scope of bullying in their districts, as required by law.

► The state Department of Education is not enforcing the law, and an official there says districts are responsible for monitoring their own compliance because the department doesn't have the authority to enforce state laws.

► One-third of the districts, most of which have more than 2,000 students, reported fewer than a dozen bullying incidents to the state last school year. Experts say it's likely officials in those districts are underreporting the number of bullying incidents to the state. 

► The Lansing School district, with more than 10,000 students, has reported more bullying incidents to the state than any other school district in Michigan for the last two school years. That may be because districts can define bullying in different ways. 

Bullying can cause lasting damage, and it’s more prevalent in schools than most adults realize, said Susan Limber, a developmental psychologist, researcher and professor at Clemson University.

At the heart of the issue, experts said, is that bullying in schools is an adult problem. Solving it requires a willingness to track bullying incidents honestly, and to take them seriously.

“We know what to do,” said Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor of social work at Michigan State University who specializes in bullying. “We’re not doing it. That’s the problem.”

An anti-bullying law with little oversight, or teeth

The Matt Epling Safe School Law, first enacted in 2011, requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies that outline procedures for staff or students to report incidents to administrators or staff members who are designated to address them, notify parents of the children involved and investigate those incidents.

The law also requires school districts’ policies include “a procedure to report all verified incidents of bullying and the resulting consequences, including discipline and referrals, to the board of the school district or intermediate school district or board of directors of the public school academy on an annual basis.” 

Students raise their hands when asked how many knew someone who has attempted suicide during the Stand4Change anti-bullying event on Friday, May 3, 2019, at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills. Bully prevention advocate Kevin Epling was one of the speakers during the event.

The State Journal asked officials from 18 area school districts for copies of their annual reports on bullying incidents given to their boards of education.

Here's what happened:

► Two school districts – Dansville and Mason  – provided copies of Board of Education reports that include all the information state law requires be provided to school boards.

► Several school districts – including Grand Ledge, East Lansing, Waverly and Williamston – provided reports that don’t include all the data required by law. They included a total number of bullying incidents each has tracked in a school year, but didn’t include the discipline and referrals that resulted from those incidents. Okemos provided copies of annual reports that detail the number of bullying incidents and resulting discipline, but didn't include referrals.

► Lansing School District Associate Superintendent for School Culture Karlin Tichenor told a State Journal reporter staff does share the required information with its board in a report, but the district did not provide such a report, despite several requests from the State Journal.

► Three school districts — Holt, Bath and Leslie  — sent documents to the State Journal, none of which included annual bullying reports to their boards.

► Officials at Haslett and DeWitt indicated they don’t keep written records of the information that staff members present to their boards.

► Officials at five districts  — Charlotte, Eaton Rapids, Portland, Potterville and St. Johns — said they did not find records of bullying reports containing all the required information to their school boards.

The Michigan Department of Education doesn’t know how many school districts are complying with the Matt Epling Safe School Law, said Aimee Alaniz, supervisor for the Department of Education’s School Health and Safety Programs Unit.

Alaniz said while the law mandates what anti-bullying policies must include, there is nothing in place that requires school districts to follow those policies once they are adopted.

"The only requirement that was built into legislation was that school districts turn (the policy) into us, basically," Alaniz said. 

The Department of Education doesn’t have the authority to enforce the law, she said.

“As far as the compliance piece, once we say, ‘Yes you have submitted your policy,’ that’s kind of where our compliance ends, and then it goes back to the local school board,” she said. “We have no legal authority to intervene, unfortunately.”

Rick Jones, a former Republican state senator from Grand Ledge who was a sponsor for Matt's law, said the law was very clear.

“My belief at the time was that that there would be an anti-bullying policy in all schools and all schools would be required to follow this policy," Jones said.

He said the Department of Education should be providing that oversight.

Students listen as bullying prevention advocate Kevin Epling speaks during an anti-bullying event on Friday, May 3, 2019, at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills. Kevin's son, Matt, was bullied and took his own life in 2002 at the age of 14.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Meridian Township, said if the state lacks the authority to ensure compliance with anti-bullying laws that needs to be addressed.

“Maybe we have to change the law to make sure that there is more oversight, because the idea that the state Board of Education would tell you that basically schools don’t have to follow the law doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Hertel said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who sponsored the law as a state senator, said the original draft of the bill "had more teeth." What passed "was a modest step forward but didn’t go nearly as far as I personally would like to see us go in terms of protecting kids in our schools."

Whitmer agreed with Jones that the Department of Education should be enforcing the law. "But I also know that (the Department of Education) going to need to have the support, direction and resources to make sure that they’re in a position to do that," she said.

Experts aren’t surprised by the lack of oversight in Michigan.

Some states provide more, Limber said, but it’s not uncommon for state agencies to stop looking further once school districts put an anti-bullying policy in place.

“It’s really incumbent on school districts to be vigilant and for parents and students themselves to really work collaboratively, but also to hold school districts accountable for implementing the policies that they have on the books,” she said. “They will do no good at all if they’re simply shelved in a policy manual on somebody’s book shelf.”

Schools are likely underreporting, experts say

In the last four years bullying tips reported through OKAY2SAY, a state reporting system utilized by students, have nearly doubled. The nearly 1,000 bullying tips reported through the system in 2017 were second only to tips about suicide. Still, Limber estimates that less than half of students who are bullied will report it to anyone.

Victims, she said, often underestimate what they’re experiencing. They keep quiet out of fear and shame.

Meanwhile, bullying takes a toll. One out of every five students between the ages of 12 and 18 have been bullied, according to a recent national study, Limber said. Her own research shows it’s even more common among elementary-age students.

Joanna Wohlfert holds a heart-shaped container that holds a portion of her son's ashes at her home on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Lansing. Wohlfert's 13-year-old son Michael Martin died on Jan. 25, 2019, at Sparrow Hospital, two days after attempting suicide in his home. Wohlfert says her son was bullied in the months leading up to his death.

It is linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and can result in actual physical symptoms, including stomach problems and headaches, Limber said.

It can also be a factor in school violence, and in some tragic cases, one factor among many in youth suicide, according to Stutzky.

“It’s when we don’t do enough to make it actually stop that I think then some kids will pick up a gun and try to make it stop,” he said. “To me the message is, even if we don’t understand it all, we have to care enough to actually make it stop.”

Matt's law was revised in 2015. As a result, since the 2016-17 school year, all Michigan school districts have been required to report annually the number of bullying incidents in their schools to the Department of Education.

Those totals vary greatly in the Lansing region.

Experts don’t put much stock in the numbers. Data reported by school districts isn’t an accurate measure of bullying in schools, Limber said, because there are too many “pressures on educators” that lead to underreporting.

“There certainly is a place for making official reports to make sure that when kids say that they’re being bullied that we are responding to it in a school as quickly and comprehensively as we can, but I do not think that it’s an accurate reflection on the real incidents in those school districts.”

More: Report: Lansing schools did little to help boy who took his own life

Teens are anxious and depressed, but treatment to prevent suicide hard to find

Last year six area school districts reported more than 40 bullying incidents to the state. Among them was Grand Ledge Public Schools, with more than 5,000 students, which reported 82 bullying incidents, and Eaton Rapids Public Schools, with over 2,200 students, reporting 101.

St. Johns Public Schools Superintendent Mark Palmer said while the district’s 42 incidents of bullying last school year are higher than some districts of similar size - like Charlotte which tracked 19 incidents last year - parents should look beyond those numbers.

“As an administrator, I would rather have us over report than under report,” Palmer said.

The Lansing School District's Tichenor agrees. The district reported 590 incidents last school year and 764 the year before that, both statewide highs.

“For us I think it’s our effort to be transparent about the reality, what happens in schools every day,” he said. “I can’t necessarily speak to other districts, but I do know that on average there’s one bullying incident a day for any school, so for any district to say they have less than 12 across the year, to me, is not transparent.”

Students leave Okemos High School at the end of the school day on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Okemos Public Schools, with more than 4,000 students, reported three incidents of bullying to the Department of Education last year. "I think low numbers are something to celebrate," Okemos Superintendent John Hood said. "I think we see those as a sign of success."

A half dozen area school districts reported fewer than 12 bullying incidents last school year. Okemos Public Schools, with more than 4,500 students, reported three. East Lansing Public Schools and Waverly Community Schools, each with more than 3,000 students, both reported seven.

Those are “implausible and impossible” numbers, Stutzky said. 

"We report the data to the state that is reported and recorded as bullying per our bullying policy," East Lansing Superintendent Dori Leyko wote in an email to the State Journal.

John Hood, superintendent at Okemos since January, said he didn’t want to “speculate” on whether his district’s numbers are accurate.

“I think low numbers are something to celebrate,” Hood said. “I think we see those as a sign of success.”

Kelly Blake, Waverly superintendent, said she believes the numbers her district has reported are accurate.

"I have complete trust in our staff and our team, our building leaders, that they are reporting accurately," she said.

More:School officials grapple with bullying, harassment after election

Stutzky believes low numbers are a red flag that a school district’s officials aren’t being honest about the bullying happening in their buildings.

“I don’t know of any school district in the entire nation that only has that number of bullying incidents in an entire year,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who would believe that. I can’t see how the superintendent would believe that. What are they doing? They’re denying it, and if you deny it it’s never going to get addressed, and it’s never going to get better.”

Some parents say districts aren't following policies 

Most area school district’s anti-bullying policies look similar. That's because they were written by the same Ohio-based consulting firm, Neola.

More than a dozen area school districts, including Lansing, Holt, Waverly and Haslett, use Neola policies, according to the company's website.

Those policies outline procedures for reporting bullying incidents. They allow for students to report those incidents to any staff member, and outline a procedure for investigating incidents promptly. They specify that parents of both the reported victims and those accused of bullying should be notified.

Amanda and Martin Quinn said staff at Lansing schools’ Wexford Montessori Academy never notified them after another student hit their 6-year-old daughter in the head with a book bag during the school day in March.

Quinn said her daughter notified a teacher after it happened. She was told “she was fine,” Quinn said. Quinn said she learned about the blow when she picked her daughter up from school at the end of the day, and her daughter told her she'd had a bad headache since the incident. She was diagnosed with a concussion in the emergency room hours later. 

The student with the book bag had been calling their daughter names and shoving her since September, Martin Quinn said, and staff knew about it.

“Not only was she not asked if she was okay, we weren’t notified,” he said.

More:Holt student told to drop bullying complaints, mom says

Tyria and Victoria Norris said Waverly schools staff didn’t notify them about several incidents of bullying their daughter Alexus, 10, experienced this year as a fourth grader at Winans Elementary School.

Students called her names, Tyria Norris said, made negative remarks about her having two mothers, and held her down on the playground. Alexus began eating lunch at a table by herself, and students often walked past her and called her names, Tyria Norris said.

Alexus told staff about the incidents, but not her mothers. And school staff didn't call either parent, Tyria Norris said. 

“My daughter was afraid to tell me because no one had been believing her,” she said.

The couple learned about most of the incidents after they say Alexus was pushed down a flight of stairs by another student outside the school last month. She suffered a wrist injury, a concussion and cuts to her face.

Tyria Norris said bystanders told her her daughter was pushed, but school officials determined Alexus fell.

“There were incidents that happened two months before and we didn’t know,” Tyria Norris said. She said school staff couldn’t produce incident reports when the couple asked for them.

Waverly Superintendent KellyBlake said privacy laws prevent her from discussing specific incidents involving students.

"Every incident that happens we deal with in a swift manner," Blake said. "If it's something that we think is very serious, parents are called, yes."

What is bullying? 

School staff should be trained to recognize bullying, said Limber, the developmental psychologist and Clemson professor. It’s a form of abuse that can present in different ways. Name calling, teasing and physical acts can all qualify, she said.

The common thread in every instance is that an imbalance of power exists between the person bullying and the person being bullied, Limber said. That imbalance isn’t always physical. It is often social or emotional.

The bullying is often repeated, or has the potential to be repeated over time, Limber said.

Experts said the definition of bullying is important, and school officials agree.

“The challenge of tracking bullying incidents to me is trying to tell if it’s true bullying,” St. Johns' Palmer said.

While parents and students often define any negative exchange or encounter as bullying, that isn’t always the case, Palmer said.

Bullying “doesn’t apply to all things,” said Tichenor, Lansing schools associate superintendent.

“Teasing has become bullying, even if that teasing is a moment, so it’s really important for us to start to redefine it and make sure that we have a shared understanding.”

More:Is your child being bullied? Is your child the bully? Here's what to do

Matt's Law defines bullying, in part, as “any written, verbal, or physical act, or any electronic communication, including, but not limited to, cyberbullying, that is intended or that a reasonable person would know is likely to harm 1 or more pupils either directly or indirectly…”

In March Lansing schools administrators recommended its board change that definition. In part the recommended language defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time and intentionally causes hurt or harm to another person or group of people who feel helpless to respond.”

The revision would exclude “single episodes of social rejection or dislike, single episode acts of nastiness or spite, random acts of aggression or intimidation, mutual arguments, disagreements or fights.”

Stutzky said an incident does not have to be repeated to be considered bullying. Some victims are subjected to more than one incident of bullying by more than one person at different times while at school or on the school bus, he said.

“You can be bullied in a single incident, and you can be harmed from that,” Stutzky said.

Still, bullying is often an ongoing relationship – and it sometimes happens within a youth’s own group of friends. It can also come from a teacher, coach or caregiver, he said.

►Support local journalism by subscribing to the Lansing State Journal.

What will it take to stop school bullying?

Tyria and Victoria Norris pulled their daughter out of Waverly schools last month. They are homeschooling her, Tyria Norris said, because they couldn’t trust school staff to keep her safe from bullying.

“It’s the only option available to us right now,” she said.

Amanda Quinn said her daughter recovered from her concussion but she won’t attend Lansing schools in the fall. They’ll enroll her in another school district, she said, because they don’t trust the staff’s ability to address bullying.

“It’s to keep her safe,” Amanda said.

Some school officials say they are engaged in addressing bullying. For the last two years, Eaton Rapids has utilized Gaggle, an Illinois-based company, to monitor its 2,300 students’ email and Google Docs accounts for anything potentially harmful.

Bullying prevention advocate Kevin Epling speaks about the issue of bullying during an anti-bullying event on Friday, May 3, 2019, at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills. Kevin's son, Matt, was bullied and took his own life in 2002 at the age of 14.

No other area school district uses the company, but Bill McCullough, Gaggle’s vice president of sales, said they review data for 25 Michigan school districts, including Bay City, Grand Rapids and Howell.

Gaggle employs 200 people who review communications for anything that may indicate violence, bullying, hate speech, inappropriate images or possible self-harm. Serious concerns prompt an immediate phone call to school officials, McCullough said.

The service costs Eaton Rapids about $14,000 a year, based on a fee of $6 per student, said Luke Brown, technology director for Eaton Rapids schools.

Eaton Rapids Superintendent Bill DeFrance credits the program with helping his staff intervene in everything from bullying to potential suicide attempts. He wouldn't give specifics, but said in March he received a weekend call from a Gaggle staff member regarding communication that indicated a student's intent to harm themselves.

DeFrance said school staff immediately reached out to the student's parents and helped to prevent a tragedy.

Two photos of Joanna Wohlfert's son, Michael Martin are displayed at her home on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Lansing. Michael, 13, died on Jan. 25, 2019, at Sparrow Hospital, two days after attempting suicide in his home.

“Kids were in dark places and we definitely helped them,” he said.

Advocates and legislators are still working to affect change. Epling speaks to students and staff at school districts throughout Michigan. He tells Matt’s story, and preaches change, but believes most school districts haven’t done enough.

“Parents have issues with their children at schools and they’re not getting resolved in a timely fashion,” he said. “Parents aren’t being notified when incidents happen, which is outlined in the law.”

Hertel said he’s been working with Epling on strengthening the law to ensure parents are properly notified when a student is in distress, and that it encompasses bullying that occurs outside the confines of school property.

“When you look at the amount of bullying, and the increase in suicide rates, in teenagers and even middle school children, it’s heartbreaking to look at what’s happening,” Hertel said. “We have to look at things differently, from when the original law passed, and make sure that all aspects of bullying are looked at in these cases.”

Joanna Wohlfert holds a memorial necklace containing a portion of her son's ashes at her home on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Lansing. Michael Martin, 13, died on Jan. 25, 2019, two days after attempting suicide in his home.

Since Michael’s death his mother Joanna Wohlfert said she’s had several conversations with parents across the country who have lost children to suicide after they were bullied in school.

More: 13-year-old died from suicide, despite his mother's pleas to Lansing Schools, Dean Transportation

Bullying is a widespread problem, she said, and it can lead to tragedy when schools don't address it.

“There is no safe space for these kids,” she said. “We’ve got to, as adults and people in a position to help these kids, give them a safe space. You don’t really pay attention to bullying unless it’s one of your own. We’ve got to get it together and help these kids.”

Contact Rachel Greco at rgreco@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

Bullying — A definition and resources

• According to the Matt Epling Safe School Law, bullying is defined as any written, verbal, or physical act, or any electronic communication, including, but not limited to, cyberbullying, that is intended or that a reasonable person would know is likely to harm 1 or more pupils either directly or indirectly. See the full definition here.

• To learn more about Michigan's anti-bullying laws and what they require visit https://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/michigan/index.html.

Outreach and resources

People seeking help for themselves or others can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. Among the warning signs of suicide: talking about suicide, expressions of hopelessness, personality changes, depression or giving away possessions. Learn more about the resource at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. 

A list of crisis hotlines in Michigan can be found at at http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/michigan-suicide-hotlines.html. In the Lansing area, those hotlines include The Listening Ear at 337-1717 and Gateway Community Services Statewide Crisis Line at 351-4000.

For more information about suicide resources visit http://www.sprc.org/states/michigan.