More than 12,000 incidents of bullying were reported by schools during the 2011-12 school year under a new state anti-bullying law, according to a state Department of Education report released Tuesday afternoon.

But an advocate who helped draft that law said the state’s reporting system is still woefully inadequate and the actual number of incidents may be much higher.

The 2011-12 Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse report was released by the state Department of Education during “respect week” in local schools. The report acknowledges that there are discrepancies in the number of HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) reports, possibly because the procedures are new and more training is needed.

In one area of the report, the total number of HIB incidents totals 12,024, but in another section the total is 13,684. Statewide, districts reported doing 35,553 investigations, and confirming almost 40 percent of them as HIB incidents. The number of complaints also reinforces district concerns about the amount of time being spent on HIB investigations.

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said in a statement that awareness is the necessary first step to create safer learning environments for students.

“We must remain vigilant in our efforts to work toward better identification and reporting from our schools and districts,” he said.

Stuart Green, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, said while he is glad the reporting is creating greater awareness of bullying, he has no confidence in the reported numbers.

“The (reporting system) is fatally flawed,” he said. “It is still self-reported by the districts, and I hate to even comment on the numbers because the more we take this system seriously, the more validity we give it.”

But he said even with unreliable numbers, the message is clear: “HIB is the most severe problem of the school-age child.”

The report shows that almost half of the 26,139 incidences of violence, vandalism and substance abuse reported by schools in 2011-12 were related to bullying. In previous years, bullying was included in the violence category, which dropped by 2,009 incidents to about 8,398 in 2011-12.

Local reporting indicates that school districts do seem to be addressing bullying complaints differently.

In Atlantic County, Galloway Township reported the most HIB incidents, 87, followed by Hamilton Township with 49, Pleasantville with 46 and Somers Point with 41. Atlantic City reported just five HIB incidents, although it had the most incidents of violence at 85.

Egg Harbor Township, the largest district in the county with almost 7,800 students, reported 61 incidents of violence and 19 incidents of bullying. Port Republic and Ventnor reported no incidents in any of the categories.

Cape May County overall reported low numbers, with Ocean City reporting 10 incidents of HIB and 16 incidents of violence. Middle Township had 18 HIB incidents and 19 incidents of violence. Cape May, Stone Harbor and West Cape May reported no incidents in any category.

Vineland, the largest district in Cumberland County with more than 9,600 students, reported 12 incidents of bullying and 106 incidents of violence. However, in an interview in September, interim Assistant Superintendent Keith Figgs said there had been about 745 reported incidents of HIB, and about half were substantiated. Figgs could not be reached Tuesday afternoon for comment.

Neighboring Millville reported 57 incidents of bullying and 63 incidents of violence. Bridgeton reported 47 incidents of HIB and 14 incidents of violence.

In southern Ocean County, Southern Regional reported no incidents of bullying and four incidents of violence. Lacey Township reported 81 incidents of HIB and 24 incidents of violence.

This year’s report does provide some insight into how bullying takes place in school. More than 70 percent of incidents, almost 8,600, were in the form of an insult that demeaned a student or group of students.

Almost 78 percent of the HIB incidents were verbal, while 19 percent were physical.

Some incidents include more than one form of bullying; 12 percent were through electronic communication and 7 percent were written notes.

A student’s sexual orientation was the basis for 11 percent of incidents, gender accounted for 10 percent, a disability for 9 percent and race for 8 percent. More than 60 percent were based on what was categorized as “another distinguishing characteristic.”

Almost a third of all bullying incidents took place in a classroom, although incidents also took place in hallways, the cafeteria, on the school bus and outside the buildings.

Disciplinary action primarily involved detention or suspension. Four students statewide were expelled and 75 were removed to another site, sometimes by court order.

Green said he is concerned with the legalistic tone schools have taken with bullying, sometimes asking students to write statements and give testimony.

“It’s like a police process, a ‘Law and Order’ episode,” he said.

Green said the goal of the law was to create a positive environment in schools. He said parents also are frustrated because school officials constantly cite confidentiality as a reason to not tell them how an issue was resolved.

More than 9,000 cases resulted in a student conference and almost 7,700 cases involved parent conferences. There were 7,127 students who received individual counseling and almost 1,500 got group counseling, which Green criticized.

“Group counseling tends to reinforce the negative behavior,” he said. Almost 700 students were given referrals for outside treatment.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241