A lot of little hands shot up in the air at Robert Frost Elementary in Pasco when the instructor posed a question many adults might struggle to answer.
"What does respect sound like?" Andrea Lopez, the school's counselor, had asked.
"I'm sorry," offered one boy.
"You need some help?" said another.
Lopez praised the kids for their answers and told them that knowing how to be respectful is the first step toward recognizing when you are being bullied or are being a bully.
The class taught by the counselor is called "Steps to Respect." It seeks to instill good behavior in school kids at an early age. The class is one of the tools school districts use to prevent fighting, bullying and other discipline problems among students.
Reports filed annually with the state show that the number of discipline violations in Mid-Columbia schools varies greatly from district to district. But that doesn't necessarily mean some schools are more safe than others.
State rules on how to file incident reports leave a lot of flexibility for districts -- enough to make comparisons between districts difficult. But numbers within each district show trends sloping downward.
Schools must file the annual reports every summer with the state, which compiles the numbers from all 295 districts and posts them online in February the following year.
The Herald requested the most recent reports from seven Mid-Columbia districts under the state Open Records Act.
Districts report how many students were suspended or expelled for infractions in seven categories -- drugs, alcohol, tobacco, bullying, fighting without major injury, violence without major injury and violence with major injury.
These reports do not include incidents of students bringing weapons to school. The state tracks those separately.
A total of six students in the Mid-Columbia last year were disciplined for the most serious offense -- violence with a major injury. It appears that this number is inaccurate and should only be half as high.
Three of the six incidents in area schools were reported by Kamiakin High School. But school officials this week couldn't match that number to last year's school records when asked to provide more details.
The U.S. Department of Education, which wrote the definitions for the reportable categories, defines major injury as any injury requiring professional medical attention.
"We couldn't find any incidents that fit that description," said Chris Chelin, principal at Kamiakin High.
The vice principal who was responsible for filing the reports with the state last year no longer works at the school, Chelin said.
There is no doubt about the other three major-injury incidents in area schools, however.
One Kennewick High student hit another in the head causing a concussion while the two were walking home from school last year, said Principal Van Cummings.
A student at Emerson Elementary in Pasco hit another kid in the face during a fight, said Principal Josette Mendoza. The punch split the kid's lip and the parents asked that their child be brought to a hospital, a request that automatically moved the fight into the "major injury" category, Mendoza said.
And at Chiawana High School in Pasco, a student early last school year cut another with a knife during a fight. The cut was not deep enough to require stitches, but the kid was taken to a hospital as a precaution, which meant the injury was listed as major, said Principal Teri Kessie.
The discrepancy between what Kamiakin reported to the state and what officials could find in their records could be because of data entry errors or because one administrator applied state guidelines differently than another.
At least some -- and, in one case, all -- of the disparity between the three main districts' reported incidents of fighting and violence appears to stem from how administrators fit violations punished according to district rules into the categories provided on the state forms.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction published instructions to go with the behavior report.
The instructions define fighting as "the mutual participation in an incident involving physical violence," and directed districts to "not include verbal confrontations, tussles or other minor confrontations."
The violence category is set up to at least include assault, kidnapping, malicious harassment and rape, as defined by state law. But the instructions give districts the option to also define other confrontations as violence.
And each district has a slightly different perspective.
"Violence means there aren't two parties equally involved," said Finley Superintendent Lance Hahn. "It could be walking up from behind and hitting someone, for example."
"One type of violence has more than two people involved," said Ron Williamson, Kennewick schools' assistant superintendent.
Pasco's two high schools differ in how they report fights. Chiawana follows the state guidelines to the letter when it comes to classifying incidents, said Vice Principal Brian Baker.
At Pasco High, zero tolerance toward fighting extends to how things are written up, said Principal Raul Sital. "Anything physical is assault," he said.
Arguments that involve physical posturing, or any "endangerment of the environment," are recorded as fighting, he said. Pasco High reported 122 incidents in the "fighting" column last year, none of which involved physical contact, Sital said.
Richland schools for at least five years have reported no incidents of violence -- with or without major injuries. Even the small Mid-Columbia districts list several such episodes each year.
Richland schools only log an incident as violence if it at least fits the description of criminal assault with an arrest, said Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley.
That means a kid at Pasco High is written up for violence if he shoves another student, whereas in Richland one would have to be arrested for "causing bodily harm accompanied by substantial pain" -- one of the state's legal criteria for assault.
As different as their reporting methods are, all district officials agree on how to prevent fighting and bullying in schools -- establish good relationships among school staff and students.
Discipline statistics jump up and down in part because schools don't have the same student leaders each year, said Finley's now-superintendent, who was the district's high school principal last year.
"I expect a lot out of my senior leadership," Hahn said. "I tell them, 'You're the only ones that can stop this.' "
When Hahn became the principal at River View High School, he urged his staff to build trust with students.
"You talk with them and treat them like adults," he said. "You ask them, 'Why would you want (fighting and bullying) here?' "
It worked, Hahn said. He saw interactions among students change over the course of that year.
"Students would jump in and stop fights," he said. "That's huge."
Chiawana High School -- now in its third year -- saw a drop in incidents last year over the year before, said Kessie, the principal. And that's no accident.
The school put measures in place that were inspired by the "broken windows theory," Kessie said.
Police departments on the East Coast decades ago found that if a window is broken on a building and not repaired, a sense of lawlessness creeps into the neighborhood and crime soon escalates.
"We now look at where our broken windows are and fix them," Kessie said.
The metaphorical broken windows in school discipline are dress code and attendance violations, for example, she said. The school last year focused on enforcing the dress code, which "made a huge impact," Kessie said.
Pasco police even noticed behavioral changes in kids coming off school buses, she said. This year, the school will broaden the approach. A new system to address unexcused absences is in place.
Old-fashioned deterrents are used at all schools too. Teachers and school resource officers -- police assigned to schools -- make sure they are visible in hallways and cafeterias between classes and during lunch.
And in Pasco, the officer responsible for the elementary schools takes turns with the counselors to teach "Steps to Respect."
The class is taught in third, fourth and fifth grade, each year building on the previous. It consists of about 10 lessons on how to be respectful, how to stand up for yourself and how to recognize bullying, said Susan Sparks, principal at Ruth Livingston Elementary.
When the lessons don't take enough hold and one child bullies another, the school puts a safety plan in place.
The kids are kept apart, a teacher is designated as a go-to adult for the bullied child and staff is told about the de-facto no-contact order between the kids, Sparks said.
It's one sign of how serious bullying -- often the precursor to fighting -- is taken in schools. Bullying is not just kids being kids, Sparks said.
"I remember hurtful things from when I was (a kid) in second grade," she said. "It is damaging, it is hurtful and we won't tolerate it."
Discipline reports for Mid-Columbia schoolsDistrictbullying ill. drug alcoholfighting w/o maj. Injury violence w/o maj. Injury violence w/ maj. Injury Kennewick100124102381244Richland78462715400Pasco182149164371672Finley61103120Burbank43323310Kiona-Benton298025250Prosser24321229220