Middle school is tough.

That's perhaps the most unremarkable finding in the state Department of Education's annual Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse report, released Tuesday.

The report now contains detailed information on incidents of bullying, one of the requirements of the state's tough new anti-bullying law.

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There were a reported 12,024 incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying in New Jersey schools in the 2011-12 school year, but that's a number that no one should take too seriously. Each district keeps track of incidents differently, and there's enough doubt about the accuracy of some of that reporting to suggest that this is far from a complete picture.

Still, it's a start. Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf is correct when he says the report provides a "new baseline" for looking at the problem of bullying. Future reports should be able to tell us whether the bullying law is having a positive effect.

The breakdowns of bullying incidents in the report are more interesting.

Half of bullies are in grades 5 to 8, even though just 30 percent of schoolchildren are in those grades. That should come as no surprise to anyone who survived middle school. The combination of new responsibility, new hormones and new freedom is tough for many students to deal with, especially as classmates grow into their teenage bodies at different rates.

But like other data in the report, this finding should help schools figure out where to concentrate their anti-bullying efforts.

Nearly 11 percent of bullying involves attacks on a student's perceived sexual orientation, while 10 percent is about gender. Bullying over mental or physical disabilities accounts for 9 percent of cases, and bullying over race accounts for 8 percent.

Most of those incidents - nearly 78 percent - were verbal. Another 19 percent were physical. Electronic communication was involved in 12 percent of incidents, and written notes in 7 percent.

And bullying is a contributing factor in other problems. It was involved in nearly half of the 26,139 incidents of violence, vandalism and substance abuse in the report.

We've said before that while the anti-bullying law is an important effort, we think its requirements are too onerous for school districts. We'd like to see the law streamlined, which would strengthen it in the long run.

But be that as it may, this report shows the value of paying more attention to the issue of bullying. And it should make it easier for districts to hone effective programs.

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