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Education Measures Are More Than Just Test Scores

Data on bullying and breakfasts show schools still have a lot to do to help students.

Two separate groups released last week seemingly unrelated reports, both with wide-ranging implications for education and students.

One, put out by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, examined participation rates in school breakfast programs in New Jersey.

The other, from the Department of Education, provided the first district counts of incidents of harassment and intimidation since the state's anti-bullying law took effect.

The 2011-12 bullying statistics were included as part of the state's annual violence and vandalism report, and boosted the total number of reported incidents (weapons and drug and alcohol incidents are included as well) by more than 50 percent over 2010-11.

Some results were surprising, and disturbing.

Parsippany had 128 instances of bullying, in addition to 29 acts of violence, 20 of vandalism, 4 involving weapons and 25 of substance abuse or possession. The district is the largest in Morris County, with more than 7,200 students, but that still works out to incidents affecting nearly 3 percent of the student population.

Butler had only 13 incidents of bullying, but 24 of violence. And its total rate of all incidents was more than 4 per 100 students.

By contrast, West Morris Regional had just 6 cases of bullying, 5 involving violence, and 18 total. That's less than 1 incident for every 100 students enrolled.

The Morris School District had 39 harassment and intimidation instances, although presumably one of those involved Lennon Baldwin, who is believed to have killed himself as a result of being bullied. He was a victim of assault by two other youths, so it could also be one of the 40 incidents of violence reported. 

Lennon's case puts a much-needed face on the numbers and drives home how much bullying and violence hurts students and how serious these incidents can be. 

There is a question of whether the numbers in the report are giving a full picture of what is happening in the schools, given it is the first year in which districts have been implementing the law and documenting incidents of harassment.

And are students reporting all complaints?

If so, there seem to be valid questions about why some districts had so many more incidents than others? Are there some places where a culture of bullying is tolerated more than others?

The other report, from ACNJ, provides data that appears to be unrelated at first, but also provides insight into how students are faring in school.

For those districts required to offer a breakfast program, the group calculated the percentage of eligible students who actually receive the meal for free or a reduced price.

This data also was eye-opening. Although only collected for a fraction of school districts—those with at least 20 percent of students of low enough income to be eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast—it found that little more than one-third of students statewide are getting the meal to which they are entitled.

In the Morris School District, more than three quarters of students eligible are receiving breakfast, which was far better than the state average. Still, according to the data, there were 251 students last spring who have been getting a breakfast and didn't.

It seems clear that all students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch should get it. It's also clear that children should not be bullied or harassed at school.

Students who go to school hungry or without having a healthy breakfast are not going to learn well. And students who go to school fearful of physical or verbal abuse or social isolation are likely to have a tougher time concentrating on learning as well.

Both reports show that there are shortcomings in our school systems that cannot be measured by test scores. They give officials, and the parents and citizens who must keep an eye on them, other benchmarks for improvement.

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