A new survey report of Oklahoma families with students enrolled in virtual charter schools reveals bullying as the top motivator for their choice.

MIAMI - Results from a recent study commissioned by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board (SVCSB) reveals bullying as the top-ranking factor among Oklahoma families in choosing to enroll a student in a virtual charter school.

The SVCSB serves as the sole authority to authorize and sponsor virtual charter schools in Oklahoma.

Virtual charter schools offer a full-time, online educational path as an alternative to traditional schooling. All virtual charter schools authorized by the SVCSB are accredited and funded by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, which means they are free and public with enrollment open to all Oklahoma students under 21.

National consulting firm Thomas P. Miller and Associates (TPMA) was commissioned by SVCSB to provide a nonpartisan study focused on determining the reasons families choose to enroll, the benefits families perceive to gain and the challenges for the families with students enrolled in virtual charter schools across the state.

The in-depth findings were presented to the SVCSB at a public board meeting in January with the full report made available at the SVCSB website soon after.

“The findings of the comprehensive report may allow schools to make research-informed decisions about the support students and families need to be successful in their educational journey,” SVCSB Executive Director Rebecca L. Wilkinson said.

Oklahoma's Virtual Charter Schools

Currently, there are four approved virtual charter schools in the state - Epic Charter School, Insight School of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Connections Academy and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy.

To be approved, a potential virtual charter school must follow the process and timeline adopted by the SVCSB. According to the state agency, the application process includes the development of charter components including organizational capacity, financial management, and education program and performance. These include essentials such as school operations, management and administration, fiscal services, public school compliance, and documentation of the school’s program of instruction and academic success.

Just over a decade ago virtual learning had a minimal presence in Oklahoma, but over the past few years charter schools, and the growing national demand for them, have helped significantly expand virtual learning opportunities available to Oklahoma students.

In the 2016-2017 school year, more than 10,000 students enrolled full-time in a virtual charter school authorized by the SVCSB, and there are currently more than 12,000 students enrolled at one of the state's four approved virtual learning institutions.

Motivating Factors

The TPMA report, Reasons for Enrolling, Benefits & Challenges of Oklahoma’s Virtual Charter Schools, determined the most important factors motivating Oklahoma families to enroll a student in a virtual charter school through a survey and individual interviews with parents and guardians from all four approved Oklahoma virtual schools.

According to the report, survey participants were allowed to select as many reasons as they desired to describe their motivations for enrolling their student in a virtual charter school, as well as providing open-ended input.

Among the findings noted in the report, the top motivating factor for enrolling a student in a virtual charter school, chosen by 40.6 percent of respondents, was “Bullying or threats from classmates at other schools.” This was followed by “Overcrowding/resource levels at other schools” (34 percent) and “Problems with staff or administration” (34 percent) as the most common answers.

Related to the unique opportunities of virtual education, respondents indicated “Opportunity for parental involvement” (31 percent); “Opportunity for acceleration or remediation” (31 percent); and “Particular learning need(s) of student” (29 percent), according to TPMA.

When asked to rank these reasons by level of importance, TPMA reports respondents rated students’ learning needs, medical needs, and health and safety as the most significant factors.

Concerning safety specifically, the TPMA report notes that 77 percent of survey respondents believing virtual charter schools offer a “safe educational environment” is of particular significance due to the percentage that selected virtual schools in response to safety threats in traditional in-person educational environments.

The Bully Problem

The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education released the first federal uniform definition of bullying for research and surveillance in 2014. CDC defines bullying as, "Any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated."

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. Much fewer have been cyberbullied. Only about 20 to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying. Most bullying happens in middle school. The most common types are verbal and social bullying. There is a growing awareness of bullying, which may lead some to believe that bullying is increasing. However, studies suggest that rates of bullying may be declining. It still remains a prevalent and serious problem in schools.

Bullying is linked to several negative outcomes including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide, according to StopBullying.gov, a resource website provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Further, the site highlights there is no federal anti-bullying law, and although 49 states have anti-bullying legislation, including Oklahoma, bullying is not illegal.

In Oklahoma, data from the Oklahoma State Department of Public Education Safe and Drug-Free School Annual Report 2016-2017 reveals a total of 4,543 reported student bullying incidents statewide without physical injury and 145 with physical injury. See the chart below for a breakdown of incidents by grade.

Bullying of Students Statewide 2016-2017

In Ottawa County, data from the 2017 Annual Incident and Suspension Report shows there were no reported suspensions for student bullying for high school grades 9-12 and eight incidents of student bullying without physical injury in elementary grades K-5 and three incidents for middle school grades 6-8.

As research continues into the causes and most viable solutions for bullying, for some Oklahoma parents, the choice of virtual charter schools appears to offer a proactive approach to a complex issue impacting education.

Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Email her at dballard@miaminewsecord.com and follower her on Twitter @dm_ballard.