SEATTLE - Washington's expanded new anti-bullying law went into effect on Thursday to tackle what statistics show has become a growing problem in the state.

State education officials say nearly 15,000 students were suspended because of bullying in the 2008-2009 school year and 442 were expelled.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction says the numbers show a small, steady increase in each of the past three school years. Numbers for this school year were not yet available.

The anti-bullying law taking effect this week requires every public school to have a policy for dealing with bullying. Those plans need to go to the OSPI by mid-August. It is an expansion of existing school anti-harassment laws.

The number of kids who are punished for being bullies represents about 1.5 percent of the state's more than 1 million public school students. But educators say the problem could be worse than the numbers show.

To be honest I think the numbers are far larger than anybody understands partly because the more subtle forms of bullying go under the radar of people who monitor these types of things in school, said Todd Herrenkohl, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.

Mike Donlin, a nationally-recognized educator on bullying issues who works with the Seattle School district, agreed. His research indicates about 20 percent of students have been bullied.

Bullying today is broader than someone being picked on or made fun of at school or on the bus. Cyberbullying through cell phones, e-mail and social networking sites has been growing along with the technology.

Kids are using text messaging and e-mail and social networking sites as a way to intimidate other kids after school and on weekends too, says Herrenkohl. That's something that's increasingly difficult to monitor.

Donlin draws a connection between real-world bullying and cyberbullying, saying kids who are being made fun of at school are likely to have problems online after the bell rings.

He said that's a weakness of Washington's laws against school bullying; they only apply to incidents on school grounds and during school hours.

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