Bullying. Cyberbullying. Harassment. Intimidation.

It seems like a week doesn’t go by where there isn’t some story about an incident of bullying or harassment. How serious is the problem in this area? And what defines "bullying"?

State law defines bullying as "Any intentional written, verbal, electronic, or physical act that a student has exhibited toward another particular student more than once and the behavior both: Causes mental or physical harm to the other student; and Is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for the other student."

"What we are seeing is a lot of students and parents are claiming bullying and when it is investigated by building administration, very few incidents are found to be actual bullying," said Rebecca Furbay, director of student services with the Tallmadge City Schools. "Students and parents are perceiving any negative interaction with another student as bullying. "

Joe Clark, the superintendent for the Nordonia Hills City Schools, agreed.

"The term ‘bullying’ typically is overused," Clark said. "While students may be engaging in mean or aggressive behavior, it does not technically meet the definition of bullying. We still deal with those sorts of things, of course, but they would not appear on a bullying report if they do not meet the legal definition."

What parents should look for, if they suspect their child is being bullied, is repeated incidents by a person or a group, said Superintendent Tom Bratten of Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools.

"Calling someone a name or teasing someone in the hallway is not bullying," Bratten said. "But doing it every day in order to usurp your power or authority over someone is. Kids can be cruel and mean to one another, we’ve all seen it; but, not every time one is cruel or mean to someone else does that constitute bullying. It can simply be a case where a student just isn’t acting in a respectful way to their classmate.

"Yes, it is mean, and yes, it is not nice nor right, but unless it is a repeated behavior with the purpose of power over another, it does not automatically raise to the level of bullying."

In Tallmadge, between August and December 2016, 28 cases of bullying were reported; five were confirmed. From January to May 2017, 21 cases of bullying were reported and two were confirmed.

In the Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools last year, there were 69 reported cases of bullying, and 35 of those were found to have merit, according to a June 6 letter from the superintendent to School Board President Gerry Bettio.

In the June 2017 bullying report for Northfield Elementary School in the Nordonia Hills School District, five incidents of bullying were reported, and one was disciplined. In Ledgeview, four cases were reported, and three students were disciplined. At Rushwood, one student was disciplined for bullying after a bullying case was reported.

At Woodridge, there was one case of bullying each reported at Woodridge Primary and Woodridge Middle schools, reported on May 2017. Seven cases were reported at Woodridge Intermediate School and three cases at the high school.

In Cuyahoga Falls, the 2014-15 school year had 13 cases district-wide; 2015-16 had 19; and 2016-17 had 13 documented cases, said Cuyahoga Falls Superintendent Todd Nichols.

"As you can see, there are few documented cases that meet the definition of bullying and harassment," Nichols said.

The state law

The state requires districts to post information on bullying and harassment cases on their websites.

Schools report disciplinary action in the Education Management Information System (EMIS). The EMIS Manual is available on ODE’s website, said Brittany Halpin, associate director for media relations with the Ohio Department of Education.

Dominic Binkley, public information officer for the state auditor’s office, said the only requirement of the auditor’s office set by HB 276, the law that requires districts to post their bulling reports online, "is for auditors to note in the school district or community school’s audit report whether or not they have adopted an anti-bullying policy, and whether the contents of the policy comply with statutory requirements." If the district or community schools is compliant, the auditor does not need to check again in future audits unless the law is revised and part of the policy changes.

"Generally speaking, the auditor’s office only performs subsequent checks if the district or community school is not fully compliant during the initial review," Binkley said. "Once compliance is achieved, no subsequent checks are required."

If a district did not comply, it would have an audit comment or finding included in its audit report noting the noncompliance, Binkley said. The auditor’s office forwards all school district audit reports to the Ohio Department of Education. Binkley added that all of the traditional school districts in Summit and Portage Counties "were at some point determined to be compliant."

Signs of bullying and of a bully

Bratten said that technology and social media have created avenues for bullying and being bullied that parents need to watch closely.

"It certainly has become easier for people to [bully] because people like that get to hide behind a computer screen or a phone," Bratten said. "So you do witness it more because there are so many avenues in which to do it. To me, those types of people are cowards. Bullies will prey on often-defenseless people and try to exert some sort of power or influence over another person or group of people in a repeated fashion. That is the very definition of bullying."

Parents need to monitor their children’s texts and social media use, Bratten said.

"No matter how much it upsets the child, parents need to be aware of what is on their child’s phones or social media," Bratten said. "I recommend an open and honest discussion with their child about the way to allow that access to happen with respect for both parties so that the child feels respected yet understands that the parent is still going to be that, the parent."

Tips from the Ohio Department of Education include:

At Home:

• Talk with children often and listen carefully to what they have to say.

• Discuss bullying behavior and how hurtful it can be to others.

• Make behavioral expectations clear and be consistent with discipline when siblings and peers engage in hurtful teasing and bullying.

• Help children understand the meaning of friendship by modeling friendly behavior.

• Discuss the fact that all people deserve respect, even though their individual characteristics and personalities may differ from the expected.

• Urge children to tell an adult when they are being bullied.

At School:

• Learn the school rules, expected behavior and consequences of bullying.

• Participate at school, offer services and attend school-sponsored activities.

• Communicate regularly with your child’s teacher.

• Report bullying behavior immediately when you become aware that it is happening.

• Ask for and accept the school’s help if your child is a target, a bully or a bystander.

Clark said, "the district is very proactive in working to prevent bullying."

"Counselors in every building teach classes to students about what bullying is, how to respond to it, how to report it and how to engage in appropriate behaviors," Clark added. "We also have periodic assemblies or large group sessions in bullying prevention, and we have character education programs in each building. When bullying is reported, we investigate and use a wide range of strategies to respond appropriately. These responses include anything from mediations to suspensions, and the entire range of options in between."

Nichols said the district has a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program.

"The PBIS program follows our Response to Intervention protocols wherein the supports become more intensely individualized as the student demonstrates repeated behaviors," Nichols said.

Twinsburg Superintendent Kathryn Powers said the district takes reports of bullying "very seriously," and cases "are investigated by school personnel."

"Students in violation of the section of the Student Code of Conduct regarding harassment and bullying are issued consequences ranging from out of school suspension to recommendation for expulsion, dependent upon the violation," Powers said.

Hudson Superintendent Phil Herman said suspected bullying incidents are investigated at each school.

"However, research shows that the most effective practices are those that establish a positive culture in the schools," Herman said. "We are also in the process of updating our processes to ensure consistency across all buildings. We have a policy and procedures in place, but we want to continue to train administrators and staff in understanding bullying, recognizing and appropriately responding."

One reference for parents includes www.stopbullying.gov, Herman said.

"Our buildings continue to embrace Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports and this is reflected in all of the great programs, practices, and expectations that are in place to establish a positive climate," Herman said. "Each building continues to review their PBIS practices with staff and students at the start of the school year through assemblies, classroom lessons, and/or video announcements. Buildings also annually update their PBIS building matrices as needed, provide leadership opportunities, positive motivators, or reinforce through advisor/advisee groups, freshman orientation and mentor opportunities — all to develop positive cultures. The anti-bullying message is strongly reinforced as well as good decision-making."

The school district also has several programs, including Leader in Me, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Student/Teens, Zones of Regulation and Social Thinking, to help combat bullying and enforce positive behavior, Herman said.

Bratten stressed the need for parents to be vigilant.

"Bullying is serious and can lead to devastating results," Bratten said. "It needs to be addressed when it happens. We do our due diligence but we need everyone involved."

If a child is repeatedly trying to get power or authority over someone, "then there’s an issue that needs addressed immediately," Bratten said.

"We desperately need for parents to continue to speak with their children on what is and isn’t OK in their behaviors toward others," Bratten said. "That parental reinforcement will go a long way in helping us to curtail the behaviors we see. We need their help. Desperately."