The Human Toll of Missing Data

By Gabriella Paul

April 1, 2021

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Runtime: 00:18:43

Below is a transcript. We encourage you to listen to the episode. It was written to be heard, not to be read. 

Itea Aslanian: This past October, Anna would have been 18. 

Gabriella Paul narration: Itea Aslanian can talk stoically about her daughter Anna. 

Itea Aslanian: It definitely gets more difficult

Gabriella Paul narration: But it’s just masking her pain.

Itea Aslanian: Different people that I’ve talked to have said, “You learn to cope as time goes on.” I can say this wholeheartedly, I don’t believe you learn to cope, I believe that you learn to survive.

Gabriella Paul narration: Anna was the victim of bullying at her local high school in Lowell, MA—before committing suicide two weeks after her 16th birthday.  

Itea Aslanian: When all of that happened, we were all in shock. I can’t even really begin to express the different emotions.

Gabriella Paul narration: Left scrambling for answers.

Itea Aslanian: Everybody trying to kind of pull themselves together. We had discovered a letter that she had left behind.

Gabriella Paul narration: Her mom found a suicide note tucked beneath a collage of photos hanging on her bedroom wall—three photos of paris, a place she dreamed of visiting one day.  

Itea Aslanian: Basically, her letter was very in depth, and in her own words, said, “I’ve basically been bullied and body shamed since seventh grade.”

Gabriella Paul narration: Detailing her abuse.

Itea Aslanian: Telling her that she was fat, that she should be smaller, that constant poking, that constant body shaming piece. So, these little blips or these little things that she writes in her letter, the meaning behind them is huge.

Gabriella Paul narration: From the University of Florida’s Brechner Center, I’m Gabriella Paul, and this is a Why Don’t We Know extra episode about the human toll of missing data.

Depending on where you look, you can find a statistic that will tell you any number you want to hear about how often students are bullied or harassed in school. 

In my reporting, I found studies that range from 9% to 98%. The national center for education statistics aggregated the findings of 80 different studies and reported that 35% of students are bullied in school. Another 15% are cyberbullied or bullied online. 

Why is that? Why are bullying numbers all over the place? And why does it cause students like Anna Aslanian to fall through the cracks?

The problem of inconsistent data goes back to a national reporting requirement by the department of education—what’s known as the civil rights data collection. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we took a deep dive into this data set in episode 12, when we looked at guns being brought into schools. 

Basically every two years, schools have to report nearly 2,000 data points to the department, which includes the reported incidents of bullying broken down by five categories—based on gender, race, ability, sexual orientation and religion.  

The key word there is “reported” “reported incidents,” and if you’re wondering: “Well, how often do victims really turn in their bullies?” Then you’ve cracked the code.

In fact, a jump in cases rarely means that the bullying or harassment is more frequent. It might actually mean that victims feel more secure in outing their perpetrators. Therefore, self-reporting is historically a terrible way of tracking

In fact, when we look at national crime statistics that depend on this model—like rates of domestic violence and sex crimes—surveys show that the numbers are severely underreported. That’s because the data relies on voluntary, self-reporting victims. Tracking bullying and harassment is no exception. 

In 2010, a renowned book retained, in part, by the U.S. National Library of Medicine published research on the topic and found that national rates of bullying vary anywhere from 5 percent to 44 percent because of inconsistent tracking methods.

Our team of reporters at Why Don’t We Know requested bullying numbers from all 50 states and found instances where similarly sized districts provided wildly different numbers, lending credibility to the assumption that not everyone is tracking the same way. In addition, at the state level and even at the district level—bullying isn’t consistently defined, so it can’t be consistently tracked.       

Why Don’t We Know reporter McKenna Beery spoke with a bullying expert about the inherent flaws of bullying surveillance.

McKenna Beery narration:  States don’t even have consistent or universal laws or tactics for reporting bullying incidents.

Dr. Deborah Tempkin: Data can be both a tool for accountability, but it can also lead to schools trying to discount or hide more behaviors. 

McKenna Beery narration: That’s Dr. Deborah Tempkin. She is the VP of Research for a national nonprofit called Child Trends, which is widely trusted for its data analysis. 

Dr. Deborah Tempkin: So, what I mean by that is that it’s sort of a motivation for schools to keep their numbers low. They don’t want to be perceived as an unsafe school. They don’t want parents to think that there’s lots and lots of bullying happening at their schools. So, you know there’s incentives for schools to suppress those numbers and to really discount things that might really be bullying. They don’t want to count because it would inflate their numbers.

McKenna Beery: Gotcha, I received a response from a FOIA request from one of the states. It said that they don’t actually require their schools to report any bullying data.

Dr. Deborah Tempkin: I think that’s the case with most schools. There are a couple states that do require it, D.C. is one. Schools are required to report for the Civil Rights Data Collection. What we see in the Civil Rights Data Collection is that the rate of bullying is less than 1% if you consider the full population of students.

Gabriella Paul narration: I ran the numbers myself, using data made available by the U.S. Department of Education. In the fall of 2017, over 50 million students were enrolled in K-12 schools. The same school year almost 123,000 cases of bullying were reported which comes out to .24. 

Like Deborah said, that’s purportedly less than 1 percent of all students being bullied in America. Just like we expected, the numbers prove bullying incidents are under-reported because the data relies on self-reporting victims and good acting schools—two things that rarely happen together, if at all.  

McKenna Beery narration: What Deborah Tempkin suggested is that instead of relying on over acts of reporting, schools should move toward actively reaching out to students to get a sense of the social climate inside their classrooms. This might make numbers seem higher, but they would likely be more accurate. A survey for example, could achieve that. Schools—or some other entity—would reach out to students and give them the opportunity to report instead of the student having to reach out first.  

Dr. Deborah Tempkin: It’s really the school that’s recording and making the decision whether or not to record an incident. And so, we have to think through that in terms of the validity of that data.

Gabriella Paul narration: Anna Aslanian was supposed to be given a survey at her high school.

Itea Aslanian: We were told that there is a mental health survey. I thought they said that they give to sophomores and seniors.

Gabriella Paul narration: After her death, her parents asked for that survey. It should have been kept in Anna’s records. 

Itea Aslanian: They basically said that they could not offer that to us. It was not available to us. And again, I don’t know if it was that they didn’t have access to it, they couldn’t locate it, or whatnot, but we basically never were able to see that record of hers.

Gabriella Paul narration: As far as we know, Anna had not officially reported her bullies to school administrators, and without that survey there was no evidence, no paper trail of her suffering.

Itea Aslanian: When we sat down for the investigation, we requested that specific individuals be interviewed because of Anna’s letter, and because of stories that were brought to us from other individuals

Gabriella Paul narration: Bullies who were identified by Anna, in her final words. 

Itea Aslanian: These individuals were neglected to be interviewed.

Gabriella Paul narration: School officials found no wrongdoing on their part.

Itea Aslanian: It was stated that upon investigation— that was conducted between the headmaster and a couple of other individuals at the high school—the conclusion was that they found no evidence of bullying.

Gabriella Paul narration: Anna became a missing data point on the spreadsheet tracking bullying at her school. 

Itea Aslanian: I can’t really say that I feel that the investigation was what I would have wanted it to be because the school was investigating itself.

Gabriella Paul narration: Anna’s case was a perfect storm. There were no records and therefore no liability. But when Itea began digging deeper, she realized that the missing data problem extends beyond her daughter’s case. 

Itea Aslanian: When you have something that is visible, that you can look at, and there’s statistics there, research has been done, I think it makes it more real. And so, maybe this really is a questionable problem, or maybe this really is an issue that needs to be addressed. I think that if you have tools like this, I think it kind of arms you with more knowledge, and you’re able to understand and be more attentive to resources that schools need.

Gabriella Paul narration: There’s another layer to this, in fact, many more layers. The problem of bullying has plagued schools, parents and advocates for years. With the rise of the internet, it’s only become more of a national health crisis. 

Schools struggle to define bullying. In one case, we found that students using the n-word went unpunished because there was no specific mention of race in the school’s bullying policy. The fact is school staff are still struggling with how to solve this problem.

Better data could surely help them get a better grasp on it. It could surely help lawmakers write more effective legislation, and it could help administrators better understand what’s really happening amongst students. 

Even so, parents of students who are bullied might still be kept in the dark, and the reason is student privacy. The Federal Student Privacy Law (FERPA) has been the focus of season one of Why Don’t We Know, and it contributes to the persistence of bullying. 

Across the country, we’ve seen FERPA deny parents the ability to know the punishment in cases where their children were victims of bullies. Parents’ primary objection? FERPA is doing more to protect the privacy of bullies than to protect victims. The result is that schools are free to operate in the dark. There is no accountability, no assurance that cases are being taken seriously. 

Brooke Greier: That’s what’s frustrating to me about this student privacy act.

Gabriella Paul narration: That’s Brooke Grier, a Kansas mom whose adopted daughter, Salaya, endured racial bullying for years. 

Brooke Greier: You go through a court system and you’re allowed to know what your perpetrator was given. You’re allowed to know what the punishment was, and I don’t understand why it can’t be that way as well in a school system.

Gabriella Paul narration: She spoke to reporter McKenna Beery about what happened.

Brooke Greier: Well, it’s actually been going on since middle school. The same group of boys, basically making fun of her hair, her skin color, calling her names, to the point where she wouldn’t let me put any kind of hairstyle in like braids or anything like that because she didn’t want to be made fun of. 

McKenna Beery narration: Brooke told me that she didn’t realize the extent of the problem

Brooke Greier: Because she’s a pretty strong girl. So, she would just say, “I don’t want to stand out. I want to be like everybody else.

McKenna Beery narration: Until a trip at the end of their eighth grade year.

Brooke Greier: After they got home, there were pictures circulating on Instagram….

McKenna Beery narration: It was an ape statue from the theme park they visited.

Brooke Greier: And there was a young man behind the ape statue that appeared to be doing sexually inappropriate things.

McKenna Beery narration: And Salaya was tagged in the photo.

Brooke Greier: And someone had tagged Salaya as being the ape.

McKenna Beery narration: It continued the next year in high school.

Brooke Greier: These boys kept making comments to her in math class and kind of razzing her, the usual things, making fun of her hair, and they were calling her orangutan. 

McKenna Beery narration: And then another photo began to circulate. 

Brooke Greier: And I did not know about this until all of this came to fruition in math class when they started sending pictures of her depicted as an orangutan. It was photoshopped with a photo of her on the bottom of a shoe, and it said something about shit on my shoe. 

McKenna Beery narration: Up until now, Salaya hadn’t reported anything. She was afraid of what the bullies might do if she got them in trouble. Eventually, her mom stepped in anyway, insisting the administrators get involved. 

In turn, she expected to be kept in the loop, to be informed of the punishment her child’s bullies now faced, to at least be reassured that Salaya was now safe at school. 

Brooke Greier: I wasn’t able to be given any official word because of the student privacy act

McKenna Beery narration: She was completely left in the dark, told that the information she was seeking was privacy protected by FERPA

Brooke Greier: I’m not asking for a social security number, I’m not asking for a health report, I’m asking to know what discipline was given when it involves my child. And to me I have a right to know that. I have the right to know if my child was called the n-word. I have a right to know if you dealt with it appropriately or you didn’t. And just talking about it with you, I can feel my blood pressure up because when my child is treated inappropriately, I feel like the bully gave up their privacy at that point. When you decide to not be respectful to my child, then I have a right to know how you are disciplined.

McKenna Beery narration: The only information she received was through the grapevine, rumors in hallways and talk amongst parents that made their way back to her. She eventually learned that the kids got a few days detention. Soon after, word spread to social media, Hiawatha police got involved, and the local news caught wind of it.

KSNT News: Tonight, we are hearing from local parents who say their daughter was the victim of bullying and racism.

Gabriella Paul narration: She joined a growing list of parents across the country who feel slighted by the schools where their children were bullied.

FOX 6: Nearly every day the Fox 6 investigators get emails about children being bullied.

Gabriella Paul narration: In 2014, Milwaukee public schools were under fire.

FOX 6: Desperate parents claiming school districts aren’t taking their concerns seriously.

Gabriella Paul narration: Years later, in Missouri.

KY3 News: Jennifer Quinn says her daughter was assaulted at lunch time at Marshfield Junior High last week. “It’s been a week and I still don’t know anything.”

Gabriella Paul narration: In March of 2020.

Wilx Michigan: Parents are frustrated with their school system saying the administration is turning a blind eye to bullying.

Gabriella Paul narration: And there are many, many, many more. Too many to count. 

CBS58: A 15-year-old Kettle Moraine student is suing the school district. 

She says she has been the target of racist bullying.

WBRC: He was in the ninth grade at Hunsel High School. However Thursday, Nigel tragically took his own life, and by all accounts it was due to bullying from others about his sexuality. 

WMBF: Cyberbullying is far too common for kids and teens these days, and because anyone can hide behind a screen—it is easier than ever. It can happen anywhere and at any time. 

Gabriella Paul narration: These stories highlight so many different failures: failures to define bullying, the flawed reliance on victims to be the ones to come forward, the under-reported and unreliable tracking of bullying, and the misuse of privacy laws to shield parents from knowing if or how bullies have been disciplined. And it all comes at a human cost.

Itea Aslanian: At the end of her letter, she wrote, “I hope that by writing this letter it brings awareness to the way people treat each other. And I hope that people can contribute to this world in a more positive way now that I can no longer contribute.”

Gabriella Paul narration: To help Itea in her mission to spread bullying and suicide awareness, you can visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention online at asfp.org. To make a difference where you live, join a chapter or participate in an “Out of the Darkness Community Walk” in your city to raise funds and awareness against suicide. 

If you are the victim of bullying or know someone who is, visit stopbullying.gov for resources and support. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-272-8255 or visit them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. 

This extra was written by me, Gabriella Paul, with additional reporting by McKenna Beery.

Records requests for this episode were done by McKenna Beery, Camille Respess, Audrey Mostek, Tori Whidden, Hannah Himmelgreen, Arlette Garcia, Hanzhi Chen, Noah Ram, Kaylee Whidden, Rebecca Grinker, Trey Ecker and Alexandra Harris.

The producer and host of Why Don’t We Know is Sara Ganim.

The associate producer is Tori Whidden.

This episode was edited by Amy Fu and James Sullivan.

Music for this episode was composed by Daniel Townsend.

Audio mixing was done by James Sullivan.

The executive producer is Frank Lomonte.

Why Don’t We Know is a production of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. A Special thanks to the Hearst Family Foundation for providing the grant money that supported this reporting. For more information, please visit our website at www.whydontweknow.org.