Guide to Bullying Prevention

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You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mohandas Gandhi

Evidence-based research gleaned from respected institutions, media reports, and the hallways of our nation’s schools all point to the same truth: Bullying has devastating effects. Just a quick look at statistics reveals the depth of the problem:

  • Analysis of high-profile school shootings such as Santana, Columbine, and Virginia Tech reveals that that up to 71 percent involved attacker(s) who felt bullied, persecuted, attacked, or injured. 1

  • Around 160,000 school children stay home from school each day out of fear, often without telling their parents why.2

  • Children targeted by bullies experience higher than normal levels of insecurity, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and physical and mental symptoms.3

  • Adults who were bullies as children have higher rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, and other violent crimes.4

  • The percentage of students who report being bullied rose 50% from 1983 to 2003.5

In short, bullying is an act that cannot be ignored if we are to safeguard our nation’s schools and young people.

Prevention and Intervention

While the problem is prevalent––up to 80 percent of adolescents report being bullied during their school years––students report that 71 percent of teachers or other adults in the classroom ignore bullying incidents.6 Adults often either justify their lack of action with long-held myths (“bullying is a part of growing up”) or are simply unprepared to intervene effectively.

Equipping administrators and teachers to respond more effectively is part of the answer, but the problem is complex and defies simple solutions. The majority of bullying incidents happen outside of the eyes and ears of school personnel—on buses, on sidewalks on the way home, at sporting events, and in bathrooms and locker rooms. Complicity among young people not to share knowledge of incidents of bullying with adults is common, often due to fear of retaliation. Ironically, while targets are disempowered by this code of silence, bullies gain power and prestige from it.

A joint study of the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education titled “The Safe School Initiative” (2002)7 points to the need to create an environment in which students feel safe enough to break the code of silence—thus giving voice to the silent majority of bystanders who disapprove of the bully’s actions.

Multiple national studies show it is critical to create an environment of caring and respect in the classroom and school––an environment where children and adults have zero tolerance for acts of disrespect. A culture of caring and respect is fundamental, and to create such a culture, character education and teaching of pro-social values like tolerance, altruism, and empathy, and self-assertiveness are essential. And to ensure students’ emotional and physical safety, administrators and teachers can learn effective classroom management and discipline techniques.

Goals of This Guide

This Guide, Direct from the Field, was developed to help you create a bullying prevention program that meets the unique needs of your site, your teachers, your students, and their families.

Many research-based bullying prevention programs exist, and while we draw from these resources and their insights, this guide goes beyond the simple matching of a site to a pre-packaged program. In discussions with educators across the Commonwealth, we’ve seen that some of the best solutions to bullying and its destructive consequences are home-grown. This guide includes the collective wisdom of schools across Massachusetts that have discovered ways to make the culture of their classrooms and schools one of caring and respect. From their failings and successes comes the body of knowledge presented here.

Both traditional research about bullying and the experiential wisdom of actual schools are combined here to highlight practical classroom and school-wide strategies for administrators and teachers to:

  • Nurture pro-social skills in children––including conflict resolution, appreciation for diversity, communication, cooperation, and assertiveness––that are related to intervening in acts of bullying.

  • Utilize character education and put the culture of caring into action through service learning and other moral action models.

  • Intervene in acts of harassment and bullying with strategies for working with targets and strategies for working with bullies.

  • Work effectively with both families of targets and families of bullies.

  • Involve families and school personnel in supporting a culture of respect.

  • Develop appropriate consequences for bullies and complicit bystanders.

  • Widen the circle of caring and involvement to include your larger community.

How This Guide Was Developed

We surveyed every middle school in Massachusetts and visited elementary and middle schools, both public and independent, to learn about:

  • Programs in bullying prevention they have used or developed

  • Strategies and tools

  • developed onsite to deal with specific issues and meet goals

  • that have been most effective (and why)

  • that have been least effective (and why)

  • The nature of the problem at their sites

  • Progress made in addressing bullying problems.

We spoke with principals, professional development coordinators, health educators, guidance counselors, bullying prevention coordinators, classroom teachers, bus monitors, parents, and students. Some sites had been doing this work for years, while others were just starting out. Some sites were using a comprehensive program, while others were using components of different programs or had tailored their own solutions. At some schools, this work fell under violence prevention efforts, and at other sites it was part of character education. Some sites were rural, others suburban or urban. Some had grant money to address this issue, while others were trying to launch efforts without much fiscal support. While there was great diversity in sites and solutions, many common themes emerged.

In general, young people said a better job could be done at keeping them safe at school, pointing to places in schools they avoid, such as bathrooms, certain hallways, and parts of the cafeteria. They worry the adults in the building don’t understand the full scope of the problem. Most said they thought the adults cared about them, but they speculated that the adults lack the knowledge and resources to address an issue as complex as bullying. Bullying from a young person’s perspective can feel like a problem one simply has to deal with alone.

Adults reported being worried that despite their best efforts, a culture of ridicule and disrespect prevails outside the building. They said change comes slowly and stressed the importance of buy-in from all school stakeholders, including often neglected constituents such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and parents. Teachers and administrators doing this work see progress is possible—that efforts to teach children pro-social skills pay off. But they worry about how to fit bullying prevention into a day already crowded with competing goals driven by high-stakes testing. They point with frustration to grants that launch programs that are difficult to sustain once monies have run out.

Still, an atmosphere of hope prevails. Young people and educators across the State believe in the vision of caring and respectful schools. And they believe their efforts to create such a community will pay off.

Research That Informs This Guide

The strategies, tools, and processes presented in this Guide come from two sources:

  • Traditional research on social and emotional learning, including the fields of bullying prevention, violence prevention, and character education

  • Knowledge collected from the field through an action research model

The action research model is likely something you use all the time. We all learn from experience, and action research is an inquiry-based method of research that relies on:

    • Self-reflection

    • Reflection on one’s social system to develop specific action plans

By asking educators across the State to reflect on what has, and what has not, been working in their bullying prevention efforts, we can offer you a practical knowledge base from which to design your own efforts.
How to Use This Guide

The tools and features presented in this guide are designed to lead you through a process of discovery. This Guide will help identify roadblocks to your success and plan strategies to overcome them. Examples of policies, activities, and other tools and stories from schools across the State are offered, along with guidelines for customizing these tools to meet your schools’ needs. Throughout the text you will also find the following features:

Reflections: Questions for reflection are provided. They are meant to heighten your awareness and help your staff share their knowledge and insights about bullying. The reflections can be used privately or as staff training activities.

Things to Think About: These sections include considerations relevant to fine-tuning and customizing your efforts and gathering support from key players in your school and wider community.

Delve Deeper: Resources are offered for further exploration of many topics. Many of these resources are URLs for web-based information free of charge.

School Spotlights: Real illustrations and insights shared by educators and sites across the State are interposed throughout the text.

By the Numbers: This feature links practice to research and provides hard data to support your efforts.

Home Connections: Included throughout are ideas for bridging the gap between home and school and boosting parental support of your efforts.

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