There is now no excuse for any school in the nation to not have a research-based bullying prevention program in place. Far too many children have dropped out of school, opted for home schooling programs, committed suicide at and away from school, and on extremely rare occasions, even taken hostages or murdered their peers after being mercilessly pushed beyond their limits in schools where educators ignore bullying or don’t know how they should deal with it. Make no mistake about it, any school that does not make bullying prevention a priority is a poor quality school, regardless of test scores.
As we have seen, a number of academically top-performing private and public elementary and secondary schools have been the scene of horrible suicides and homicides when rampant bullying remained unchecked. As one principal recently told me, a fatal stabbing triggered by severe bullying at the previously exemplary high school he worked at in Texas more than a dozen years ago, has left the school in a dysfunctional state even to this day.
When Safe Havens was selected to write the content for the U.S. Department of Education Web-based school safety training program, we were asked to use a comprehensive approach. Here are a few of the traditional and nontraditional aspects of an effective bullying reduction strategy that have been found to be crucial.
First and foremost, bullying must be clearly defined for students, staff and parents. There are many misperceptions of the specific bullying behaviors. Schools should not expect students to automatically understand what is meant by bullying. Just as importantly, we should not expect school employees to inherently know what types of actions constitute bullying.
Proper Supervision of Students
A lack of proper supervision of students is almost always a factor in bullying at school. Bullying behaviors can be seen and heard by alert and properly stationed staff during class, at class change, before and after school, and during lunch periods. Securing all areas of the school that are not in use and occupied by an adult helps to improve supervision.
School officials who do not use properly conducted surveys of students, staff and parents are guessing at the level and severity of bullying in their schools. Surveys must be used to evaluate not only how much bullying is taking place, but how severe the incidents are, as well as when and where incidents are taking place. Surveys must be age appropriate so students can understand them. They should also allow participants to elaborate on concerns, as well as to mention particularly significant problems.
Bullying Site Surveys
While many school systems and private schools have hired consultants to conduct safety or security audits, a more focused approach is needed to properly address bullying. Few school safety consultants have a solid grasp of the relationship of the physical environment, its use and the level of bullying in schools. A bullying reduction site survey can be integrated into the annual tactical site survey or can be coordinated with an emphasis on bullying alone. The bullying site survey is focused on increasing natural surveillance (the ability of staff to hear and supervise students visually ), reducing the number of areas in need of human supervision by sectioning off the building and grounds into secure areas and locating physical symptoms of inadequate supervision.
Either way, there is no need to hire private consultants to perform this work. If outside help is needed, we suggest that a properly qualified expert or team of experts be used to train local personnel rather than to perform the work themselves. For a free Web-based tutorial on the tactical site survey process, visit .
Student Bullying Site Surveys
Another useful approach is to have a team of students, led by a staff member, conduct a student bullying site survey. In less than 30 minutes, a team of students and a staff member can complete a free Web-based tutorial and download a student bullying site survey checklist. Taking a few more hours to conduct a walk trough of the school and surrounding grounds, students have time and time again shown an uncanny ability to spot troublesome areas in need of increased supervision of students or of being designated as off-limits areas. The process is very similar to the site survey used by adults, but is conducted from a student’s perspective. The free tutorial is available at the same Website mentioned earlier in the article.
Part of the attitudinal change that often must occur involves the creation of a more stable environment through the use of consistent and meaningful consequences. While there are those who maintain that bullying can be addressed without punishment, research, experience and common sense dictate otherwise. This is particularly true when severe bullying behavior involves approaches that lack a component of consistent consequences, which creates an environment whereanything goes. While this approach may result in a reduction of bullying incidents on paper, the reduction will likely be due to underreporting by students who have lost confidence in school officials.
Focus on Changing the Climate
Environment is a crucial factor that must be considered to properly address bullying. By using the results of the physical assessments, data analysis and surveys, the leadership team can develop a plan of action to help improve the physical and emotional climate of the school. The focus should be on creating an attitudinal change for people, while increasing the physical and emotional warmth in the school. The use of colorful murals, opening up lines of sight and emphasizing the need for close and attentive supervision of children at all times can dramatically enhance the feeling of warmth in any school.
Law Enforcement and Court Response
While working in London, I learned the rage in England is a severe form of bullying known as happy slapping, where a group of students rapidly and violently slaps a hapless victim, often while videotaping the event. The tape is then posted on a Website and the word spread around the school to view the site causing further embarrassment to the victim. Severe forms of bullying involving physical acts of violence occur in our schools as well. When these cases come to light, it is important that law enforcement and court officials be involved, unless doing so would cause the victim harm. Somehow, adults often presume that because a crime has taken place on school property, it should not be treated as a crime.
In other instances, law enforcement and court officials are not receptive or supportive of the use of limited resources on what appear to be minor incidents. Such backward thinking must change. I shall never forget a young prosecutor in my community who complained about having to handle these cases. He told me that we should wait until we had more severe cases like shootings and stabbings and bring those to court. These are the real types of outcome we can expect when we do not deal with the minor physical assaults. This is the type of fatalistic and callous thinking that allows these horrible incidents to occur.
Working to inform key law enforcement, court and probation officials about the importance of addressing bullying cases is a key component of modern bullying reduction programs. The use of fines, court costs and community service assignments has proven to be extremely effective in reducing recurrence of physical violence. Judges can also create special court orders that greatly enhance protection for the victim and empower school administrators.
Meeting the Emotional Needs of Victims
While no one knows the number of suicides among school age youth relating to bullying, one state school safety center expert feels that there have easily been several thousand such deaths in recent years. We have seen a few of these incidents take place on school property, while most occur elsewhere. Regardless of the actual number, there have clearly been enough of these tragedies to indicate that bullying poses a significant mental health issue.
A relatively new twist in the world of bullying, cyber bullying is a natural outcome of a high-tech society where bullying is deeply rooted in our social fabric. The use of Websites and painful e-mails to cause severe bullying has become prolific and every bit as vicious as bullying in person. While there are sometimes legal and practical limitations to the ability of school officials in aiding students in addressing cyber bullying off campus, it is important for them to do everything in their legal power to address the problem. In addition, cyber bullying typically accompanies other bullying that does take place on campus.
Unfortunately, in many schools bullying is not taken seriously. As with other situations, civil litigation will perhaps be the moving force to finally change things in some schools — the deaths of numerous school children have obviously not been enough to do so. In the past couple of years, there have been a series of lawsuits filed against school administrators — most commonly building principals — for their alleged indifference or incompetence in addressing bullying situations. In these cases, the victim of chronic bullying has sought assistance from their schools’ principal without success. These students have typically started their civil action after graduating, dropping out of school or transferring to another educational setting. The students have typically either won at trial or have been awarded a settlement, with more than $1 million each for the last two cases filed against administrators in rural school systems. School officials who take the moral high ground and properly deal with the problem of bullying should never find themselves the position of defendant in a failure to protect lawsuit. More importantly, they can know in their hearts and minds that they are dedicated advocates for the children.
MICHAEL DORN Dorn is the author of more than 20 books on school safety. He serves as the executive director of Safe Havens International Inc., a non-profit safety center whose experts have worked in more than a dozen countries. He can be reached at .