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Cost Analysis of K-12 Bullying and Harassment Investigations: a Case Study

In the past couple of decades, data entry and analysis have become more and more prevalent in the school setting. We use data to determine student success rates, which students need interventions (behaviorally and academically), how many staff members are needed, and what curriculums to adopt.


But, have you recently looked at data to see how effective your current investigation process is?  If we look to data to help drive decisions in our schools, why would we not use data to reflect how our investigation systems are impacting our time and money saved? What if an effective screener could determine within 30 minutes whether or not a formal investigation is needed and save over 7.5 hours of staff time per concern or complaint? 


I have asked myself these questions.  For the majority of my nearly two decades in education, I have supported the improvement of district-wide systems.  As a school social worker, I have dedicated my professional career to ensuring students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs are met.  A large part of this work has focused on the prevention and response to bullying and harassment.  While prevention is the ultimate goal, unfortunately beyond our best efforts, bullying and harassment find its way into our classrooms and we have to be prepared to intervene.  As a result of this, it is important for school districts to ensure the investigation process benefits not only our individual students but our system as a whole.  One way to quantify this is to track the time and resources needed for an investigation in order to evaluate its effectiveness.


When analyzing savings, there are two main areas to consider - time savings and financial savings.  Time savings assess the amount of time a process saves an organization from interrupting productivity.  In a system such as a school, we can examine the time of staff, administration, as well as students.  Financial savings is how much money is saved by utilizing the process.  This can include staff per diem, utilization of resources, and even legal costs.  When time savings and financial savings are combined, you are able to evaluate the total cost savings


Investigation System Case Study

The data for this blog was collected from a large K-12 school district in the Midwest serving approximately 15,000 students and 3,000 teachers in more than 30 schools.  A five-year sample (three years prior to adopting the McGrath Response System along with two years of data while implementing the McGrath Response System) was analyzed from a district adopting the McGrath Response System. 


About the McGrath Response System

The McGrath Response System (MRS) is a comprehensive training program designed to help schools identify, report, and investigate discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and bullying (in all directions, including student-to-student, student-to-staff, staff-to-staff, and staff-to-student victim–offender relationships) compliantly with federal civil rights law. The MRS’ unique strength is that it combines the laws on bullying, sexual harassment, misconduct, and discrimination into a single, efficient system—eliminating the need for separate trainings and systems for each of these issues. MRS provides all of the forms and tools needed to effectively track and complete prompt, thorough investigations. The system provides three levels for handling concerns or complaints: 1) Intake - receive and appropriately document concerns and complaints, 2) Inquiry Investigation - determine what type of concern or complaint you have, and 3) Full Investigation - if inquiry determines that bullying or harassment is possible or a formal complaint is received, a full investigation is completed.


Evaluating the Effectiveness of Investigation Systems

Investigations, when done thoroughly, can be very time-consuming. Investigations require a healthy balance of acting “promptly” while also being “thorough.”  A determination made too hastily can result in failure to assess critical details.  With the omission of these details, the outcome may be incorrect and could affect the ability of a school district to correct inappropriate behaviors or result in false findings.  While all concerns and complaints must be handled promptly and thoroughly, some are peer conflict while others arise to bullying, harassment, or discrimination. So, how do we know what type of concern or complaint we have?  We need to have a process to screen concerns and complaints.   The McGrath Response System’s Level II Inquiry Investigation is this tool. The Level II process is a quick, yet comprehensive way to gather basic information about the concern or complaint and arrive at an initial determination.  This initial determination illustrates if the complaint was a result of peer conflict/ misunderstanding, or if there is enough evidence that shows a formal investigation is needed.  


Quantifying Time Savings of Investigation Systems

The benefit of this Level II inquiry investigation is where we find the bulk of our time savings.  With our case study, the average formal investigation took a little over 7.5 hours.  The Level II Inquiry Investigation took a mere 30 minutes in comparison.

Prior to adopting the McGrath Response System, a quality screener was not available and as a result, every complaint submitted required a formal investigation.  Once the McGrath Response System was implemented, the Level II inquiry investigation allowed the district to better assess which complaints needed a formal investigation and which ones were peer conflict/misunderstanding.  This resulted in 80% of the concerns/complaints submitted being discovered as peer conflict/misunderstanding or the complaint was revoked ending the investigation process at the Level II inquiry investigation.  During the two years, 117 complaints ended prior to a formal investigation and in turn saved an estimated 906 hours of investigation time.  When thinking of the time saved, this not only includes 906 hours of a staff member’s time that they were investigating but also instructional time.  When an investigation is being conducted, chances are many of the students including witnesses are from the same class.  Each time a student is pulled to be interviewed, the learning is disrupted in that classroom for all students and the student being pulled to interview is missing instruction. 

Another data point to consider in the effectiveness of the investigation process is how many formal investigations result in findings of founded complaints.   A successful screener should aid in the process of identifying which complaints do not rise to the level of potential bullying and harassment and therefore there is no need to continue onto the formal investigation process.  As mentioned, our case study previously formally investigated all complaints.  This led to an average of 34% of all formal investigations resulting in founded cases, meaning 66% of the investigations completed did not rise to the level of bullying and harassment.  Since formal investigations require a lot of time and resources, it is beneficial to only conduct them when they are necessary and after the inquiry investigation identifies that bullying or harassment may be present. In contrast, after implementing the McGrath Response System, 75% of the formal investigations were “founded”.  Interpreting these data points illustrates how a healthy screener helps to focus on which complaints require a formal investigation, saving staff time and resources.



In addition to time saved during the investigation, having a process that is educationally fit and legally sound, such as the McGrath Response System, can protect the district from litigation.  One lawsuit can last anywhere from several months to several years.  During this time, staff may be physically called away during work hours to be deposed and face added stress, which in turn impacts their ability to perform work tasks at their highest potential.

Understanding Cost Savings in Investigation Processes

Now that we have discussed time savings, what does this mean for financial cost savings?  Just as the saying goes, time saved is money saved.  In the two years data was collected for this case study while the district was implementing the McGrath Response System, an estimated $54,327 was saved!  An investigator was being paid $60 an hour for their services of interviewing students, reviewing data sources such as student's past history, and writing reports.  Since an estimated 906 hours were saved as mentioned above, this results in $54,327 that was not needed to pay the investigator. 

906 hours saved by not needing formal investigations x $60 per hour = $54,327 saved over two years


Mitigating Legal Risks and Lawsuit Prevention

As mentioned above, this process also can safeguard a district from lawsuits.  The financial costs associated with a lawsuit are a culmination of many costs.  Many times when the financial cost is discussed, districts consider settlements.  While civil case settlements and jury verdicts vary, they are frequently in the multi-million dollar range.  Beyond this financial burden, the costs that are not discussed as frequently are considerations for lawyers' fees, per diem costs of the employees being deposed during work hours, and substitute costs for coverage of the staff members who are missing time to attend to matters related to the case.  


As you can see by the data presented, an investment in a comprehensive investigation process and training of investigators has proven to be a cost savings –saving time and money. Beyond the cost savings consideration needs to be made for what is best for our students.  Implementing a clear process for investigating, supports student well-being by intervening swiftly and reducing the amount of harm to the students involved.  This is done by ensuring the proper level of investigation is completed and our response matches the severity of the behaviors of concern. 


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