The Legislature recommended it, but the State Board of Education is requiring it: Schools must address bullying — if they want to keep their share of $1.5 million in federal violence- and drug-prevention money.

"There are still too many kids who aren't comfortable in school, and we've got to do something about it," said Rob McDaniel, director of personnel and student services in Murray School District, whose board will discuss a proposed anti-bullying policy next week. "I think, culturally, we see it on TV, bullying occurs in music — it's just kind of a hard-knocks world out there right now. The only way we're going to fight it is to step up to the plate and (hit) it head on."

Bullying was a hot topic last Legislature, with residents pushing to address a problem that often flies under adults' radar or is treated as any other school discipline problem. Advocates say bullying is unique, can devastate victims and has risen, in the words of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, to "epidemic proportions." Behavioral Initiative said bullying was the biggest problem facing schools — far ahead of drugs and gangs, as reported last spring to the state school board.

The Utah Legislature this year passed a resolution encouraging a statewide coalition and community effort to combat bullying.

The State Board of Education took that a step further last month. It now requires school districts to define and address bullying in school discipline plans if they want Safe and Drug Free Schools funding, which ranges from $626 in Daggett to $190,000 for Salt Lake City, based on enrollment and poverty, said Verne Larsen, Safe and Drug Free Schools specialist at the State Office of Education.

Districts must find ways to assess and prohibit the problem and train students and staff to identify bullying behaviors — including cyber-bullying — intervene and enforce consequences. The state is collecting information on offenses to gauge programs' success.

The idea is to ensure all districts recognize and uniformly address the problem, board chairman Kim Burningham said. "We're a little protected in this state compared to some real urban areas, and we need to know exactly how serious the problem is," Burningham said.

Some districts say bullying has been addressed in their policies regarding hazing and harassment. "The behavior described in the (state board) rule has been prohibited, though perhaps we have not given it the label, 'bullying,' " said Martin Bates, Granite District assistant to the superintendent.

But now, he and an Alpine spokeswoman say, that will change.

The state defines bullying as aggressive behavior intended to cause distress or harm that takes place in an imbalanced-power relationship.

Murray's draft policy defines it as any act or gesture, written, verbal or physical, perceived as motivated by a person's characteristics, that harms or instills reasonable fear of harm to a student or property, demeans a student or group or interferes with school operations or a student's participation in programs or activities. The draft policy would let school communities decide how to address it, within guidelines.

In Jordan, bullying can get a student in as much trouble as bringing a weapon to school or indulging in gang activity.

Salt Lake City School District next month will train counselors on new anti-bullying procedures and what to look for.

Davis School District adjusted its policy, though elementary school counselors for two years have taught bullying prevention. Bus drivers also have been trained to identify and curb bullying outside of school.

"(The state policy is) not a big change for us because we already have bullying programs in many of our schools," said Michelle Beus, Davis' legal specialist.

Provo District is enlisting school leaders, psychologists and social workers to research bullying programs so it can best prevent students from becoming bullies, student services director Greg Hudnall said. Interventions might include classes for bullies and their parents and, in severe cases, anger management.

"Most of the families that we have worked with that have kids that are bullies are just as frustrated as the system is, and a lot of times they don't know what to do," Hudnall said. "Kids are being bullies for a reason. We want to help those kids not be bullies and get them the intervention they need to be successful in school."

Frightening statistics

Some 160,000 American students avoid school every day for fear of being bullied (National Association of School Psychologists).

More than 1 in 6 sixth- through 10th-graders say they are bullied sometimes, and more than 1 in 12 say they are bullied once a week or more (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2001).

In Utah, 93 percent of fourth- through ninth-graders surveyed by the Utah Behavioral Initiative said bullying was the biggest problem facing schools — far ahead of drugs and gangs.