Byron Utter started researching bullying and sexual harassment 15 years ago when he was still teaching, but it's what he's learned in the past four years since he's retired that worries him.
"I think for the average person who's not really on top of it, I don't believe they understand the types of things that are going on," he said. "When you talk to 60,000 kids, you get some information."
Some of that information, especially concerning how young people use their computers and cellphones, is concerning, said Utter, who now splits his time between Mobridge and Sioux Falls.
Utter spent 29 years in education, 15 at Langford and 14 at Mobridge. After he retired, he and Terry Stulken, principal at Colman-Egan school, formed the Midwest Center For School Safety. They travel the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa talking to students about challenges and problems in schools. Whenever they meet a group of students, they ask students questions that they answer by raising their hands. The process isn't scientific, but Utter believes the information is accurate. And, he said, it reveals a lot about today's students.
Students say the amount of bullying in schools continues to rise. And that technology, specifically smartphones, cellphones and social networks such as Facebook, makes bullying easier.
For many students, Utter said, bullying used to be an 8 a.m.-3 p.m. issue: When they left school, they could escape it. But that's no longer the case, he said.
According to the student surveys, 70 percent of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have seen threatening messages on Facebook, Utter said. And more threats are sent via text messages, he said.
And that's not the biggest problem. Half the students Utter and Stulken have visited have seen inappropriate images on a cellphone. And too often, Utter said, the images involve somebody students know.
"If you're seeing it at that young of an age, it becomes the norm," Utter said. "And it's not the norm. And our message to every group we've ever spoken to is you kind of have to check your moral compass."
The sheer number of text messages is also a concern, he said. It's not uncommon that students send and receive 4,000 texts a month. Many middle school girls send and receive a total of 7,000 texts a month, according to information collected by Utter and Stulken. They've found instances of students sending and receiving 25,000 texts a month.
Students commonly read and send texts while driving on their way out of school parking lots after classes let out, Utter said. That's why he and Stulken consider the two blocks around schools the most dangerous roads in America.
"It's a disaster in the making," Utter said. "I'm going to tell you there's going to be a day when there's going to be a car parked on a second-grader because someone was reading a text."
Since the Midwest Center For School Safety was founded, Utter and Stulken have visited with about 65,000 students at 125 schools. While some of their expenses are covered by partnerships with businesses, they pay the rest of the related costs themselves. That's how important the topics they discuss are to the two. Grant applications have gone unfunded so far.
"One of the things we've got to address is how (students) treat each other," Utter said.
Kids who are a little different or don't have just the right look or the right attire are popular targets for bullies, he said. A student's body size or appearance is the No. 1 reason he or she gets bullied, he said.
Bullied students often have self esteem issues and struggle in school and social settings. They wrongly start to believe the negative feedback they're given, and sometimes they take drastic measures, perhaps even killing themselves.
"I can tell you hundreds of stories (about) when kids come to us after a presentation and say, 'Can we talk?' and they tell us the stories (of being bullied)," Utter said. "And if we can help that kid get through it, then that's a fantastic story."
But it doesn't solve all of the problems. Utter knows he and Stulken can't do that. But he hopes the presentations help students take a stand against bullying.
An average instance of bullying lasts 38 seconds, Utter said. It takes another student an average of 15 seconds to intervene when they see bullying, he said.
"Peer to peer is how you stop it," Utter said. "And it stops it for a long, long time."