Dethroning Bullying: Why We Must Take Back Our Schools

Lynda L. Hinkle
MA student in English
Rutgers University
Instructor, Camden County College

E-mail: lynda_hinkle@yahoo.com

"So here's what I can't figure out. If everybody who works at school is so smart, how come they can't get rid of the bullies?"

-Jake Drake, Bully Buster by Andrew Clements

What IS Bullying?

After school hours in a stiflingly hot language arts classroom at a South Jersey middle school, teachers and administrators gather to discuss strategies for incorporating the new anti-bullying policy into the school community. One teacher raises a hand and puts to the group a question that had been boiling slowly throughout the discussion in the back of many of our minds: "Just what IS bullying? It isn't enough to say we'll know it when we see it, is it?"

Dan Olweus, the Norwegian researcher whose work on bullying began the worldwide movement toward instituting anti-bullying strategies in the schools, defined bullying as, "A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of one or more other students" (Olweus, 1993, p. 9). He explains that such negative actions also occur when there is an "imbalance in strength" and the victim is "somewhat helpless against the student or students who harass" (p.10). Olweus's definition is useful in developing a general conceptualization of bullying. However, in order to comply with the New Jersey school anti-bullying legislation signed September 6, 2002, teachers and administrators must look closely at the expansive language of the bill itself, which reads:

'Harassment, intimidation or bullying' means any gesture or written, verbal or physical act taking place on school property, at any school-sponsored function or on a school bus that:

a. a reasonable person under the circumstances should know will have the effect of harming a student or damaging the student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to his person or damage to his property; or

b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students in such a way as to disrupt or interfere with the school's educational mission or the education of any student.

'Harassment, intimidation or bullying' includes, but is not limited to, any gesture or written, verbal or physical act that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or a mental, physical or sensory handicap, or by any other distinguishing characteristic. (New Jersey Anti-Bullying Law, 2002)

The problem of bullying in the public schools has far reaching effects for students, teachers, and the community. In this article, I will outline some of the effects and suggested treatments that grew out of my research for a solution at a Southern New Jersey public school district who entrusted me with making some recommendations. The result of my research was to discover that the problem is more far reaching than even I, who had been a victim of bullying growing up, could have anticipated but that it can be solved.

But Is Bullying Really a Problem?

Dan Olweus's Norwegian study showed that 9% of students were being bullied by 7% of students in schools (Olweus, 1993, p. 13). An American Psychological Association [APA] report suggests that as many as 80% of U.S. middle school students are involved in some form of bullying behavior, as victim, bully or bystander ("Bullying Widespread," 1999). Another study reports, "American schools harbor 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million of their victims" (Fried & Fried, 1996, p. xi). A Midwestern study of students aged 12 to 18 found that 75% of students were bullied "at least once", and 7% "either perpetuated or suffered severe and repeated bullying" (Ma, 2002, p. 64). Growing up in a small working class community in the late seventies and early eighties, I recall the feeling of being singled out and alone when bullying incidents occurred. Students might be empowered by being made aware that they are, in fact, not alone and that a huge percentage of their peers have been in bullying situations.

No matter how many victims and bullies there are, almost all students in American schools will be witnesses to bullying acts and to the way in which administration, teachers and society respond to those acts. What are we teaching those children? As one educational writer proclaimed, "Bullying is actually the most common form of violence in our society. It is at the core of domestic violence, child abuse, workplace violence, hate crimes and road rage. Bullying is everywhere and schools are a primary breeding ground" (Weinhold, 2000, p. 30). Most recently, a National Crime Prevention Council [NCPC] survey found that 6 out of every 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school at least once a day and that bullying was more of a concern to teens than the fear of an external terrorist attack, even after September 11 (2003, para. 1).

James E. Copple, Vice President of Public Policy for NCPC, spoke about the results of their survey on bullying, saying:

The impact of bullying on a school climate can be toxic. Bullies and victims suffer well-documented damage, sometimes long-lasting. We've been overlooking the fact that bystanders experience fear, discomfort, guilt and helplessness that poison the learning atmosphere even more extensively. The level of bystander exposure is far beyond what many of us expected, especially in the upper grade levels, and its growth is nothing short of terrifying. (National Crime Prevention Council, 2003, para. 6)

Impact of Bullying on the School Community

The impact of bullying is not merely short term, nor only on the bully and victim. Research indicates that the impact extends over time to bystanders, teachers and administrators, and the larger community.

The Bully

Although the tendency may be to perceive the bully as merely an enemy in our anti-bullying strategy, he or she also suffers a tremendous potential negative impact from the act of bullying. For instance, consider what the bully learns when his or her behavior is left unchecked and unchallenged by adults who may not understand the harm being done. The bully learns that such behavior is acceptable or even encouraged, that might does equal right. Moreover, if left unchecked, it may lead to their attempting greater crimes in the future. Bullies are four times more likely to be convicted criminals by the age of 24 (Aldrich, 2001). They are nearly three times more likely to carry weapons, even in school, and are three times more likely to fight and twice as likely to be injured in a fight (Viadero, 2003, p. 6). A Secret Service Threat Assessment Center study of school shootings between 1974 and 2000 found that bullying behaviors on the part of the victims or shooters had previously occurred in as many as two out of three of the cases (Dunn, 2001, p. 39). These statistics point to the possibility that bullying may be just the beginning of a career of violence with lifelong consequences for young bullies. Further, studies show that bullies are at an even greater risk of suicide than their targets (National Educational Association, 2002). It is urgent that we treat these students not merely as a problem for the school community, but deal with the underlying issues that make them also at risk themselves. Strictly punitive, rather than rehabilitative, programs will not help this population of students whose cry for help is violent and real.

The Victim

For the victims of bullying, school life can be an emotionally and mentally damaging experience. Over 160,000 American children miss school each day in order to avoid bullying (Fried & Fried, 1996, p. xii). One Australian study that observed students over the course of several years showed that "in up to 30% of all students with incident symptoms of depression, the symptoms could be attributed to a history of victimization, after adjustment for other confounders" (Bond, Carling, Thomas, Rubin & Patton, 2001, p. 483). Victims tend to have low self-esteem and are more cautious and quiet than other students (Olweus, 1993, p. 32). This can have long-term effects on the students' ability to learn and achieve within the school community. Victims of bullying may also resort to violence to solve problems. In a recent study, 36.4% of students who reported they were victims of bullying in school said that they carry weapons (Viadero, 2003, p.6). With school violence on the rise, students who are victimized must also be given support on a community wide basis in order to prevent the desperate measures that some victims consider or do resort to. Further, even those victims who do not think about vigilantism, mending their self-esteem and redressing the wrongs that are leveled at them is the only way to clear the path for providing quality education to suffering students.

The Bystander

In a study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), researchers found that half of ninth graders say they sometimes observe bullying, and 29% say they often see kids being bullied ("High School Freshmen", 2001, p. 4). Bystanders generally report a feeling of powerlessness and a covert loss of self-respect associated with that powerlessness (Carney & Merrell, 2001, p. 365).

The U.S. Department of Education's Bullying Prevention Manual lists the following effects on bystanders:

They may [a] be afraid to associate with the victim for fear of lowering their own status or of retribution from the bully and becoming victims themselves; [b] fear reporting bullying incidents because they do not want to be called a "snitch", a "tattler" or an "informer"; [c] be drawn into bullying behavior by group pressure; [d] feel unsafe, unable to take action or a loss of control. ("Bullying: A Comprehensive Approach", 2000, np)

The majority of students in a school will fall into the category of bystander or witness rather than bully or victim, and yet it is the bystander who is most ignored in research and least addressed in anti-bullying programs. Consideration of these students is crucial to the development of a strong anti-bullying plan because they are the majority, and they are the students who are most likely to be won over to creating change.

Teachers/Administrators

Teachers and administrators, already overworked in other areas, may find that dealing with bullying issues creates an added daily burden. Perhaps this is why it has been historically easy for so many good teachers and administrators to become adult bystanders in many cases of childhood bullying.

Many teachers and administrators comply or acquiesce in the face of some common myths about bullying, like:

  1. Bullying toughens a child up.
  2. It's just a phase. They will grow out of it. Kids will be kids.
  3. Bullying affects only the bully and the victim. (Sheras, 2002, p. 122)

Additionally, adults in the schools may not be aware of the extent of the problem. The culture of silence within schools is strong. Studies show that only 4% of bullying incidents are reported to teachers. Yet, 47% of those who did report said that "nothing changed" after, and 16% said things got worse ("High School Freshmen", 2001, p.4). One study showed that 85% of teachers surveyed believed they intervened "always" or "often" in cases of bullying, but only 35% of their students agreed (Yoon & Kerber, 2003, p. 28). These statistics present significant challenges to teachers and administrators in implementing an anti-bullying campaign that is effective. Teachers can and must be trained to be aware of the bullying in their classrooms, and a stronger teacher presence in other areas of the school, such as hallways and the cafeteria, is necessary to protect all students.

The Larger Community

How does bullying affect the larger community? The answer lay in its effect on the free, public education we have come to rely on to develop future Americans.

According to an article in On the Same Page, a publication of the Educational Research Service:

Typically, bullies are characterized by aggressive behavior -- both toward their peers and often toward adults. They have a more positive attitude toward violence than their peers, are impulsive, like to dominate others and have little empathy toward their victims, [and] may get satisfaction from inflicting suffering. Sometimes, otherwise "nice" children choose to take part in bullying when certain group mechanisms are in place or when their own inhibitions against aggression are weakened (which might occur if they see a bully is "rewarded" for bad behavior). (Shellard, 2003, para. 3)

If, as John Dewey suggested, the purpose of education is to create good citizens, surely these are not the characteristics we want to breed in the next generation of Americans. Nor do we want to encourage our students to be fearful, damaged victims or passive bystanders as wrongs go unchallenged. Changing the pattern of abusive, violent behavior in young people is the prelude to a more peaceful future for the nation. Conversely, to continue to ignore bullying is to endorse an increasingly violent tomorrow.

Treatment of Bullying

In theory and in practice, American public schools are etching out new strategies to treat bullying on a daily basis.

Growing up in the 1970's, friends and I recall little anti-bullying efforts by our schools. Teachers and administrators generally had a reactive approach. If the bullying got bad enough, you punished the offender. In many schools, this is still the norm. One astute fourth grader confided in me, "Teachers don't see it until someone is crying or bleeding, after thatÉsomeone is going to the office." The disciplinary approach has proved largely ineffective in practice, as evidenced by the volume of research recommending other methods and the silence of research supporting it, and nationally public schools have begun an exodus toward other treatments.

Susan Limber, associate director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, has done a great deal of research on bullying and believes that teachers and administrators often ignore the problem of bullying in this way because they believe students should work things out between themselves as part of their education:

I think, I hope, fewer and fewer educators, and hopefully adults in general, are espousing the view that "it's a part of growing up," "kids will be kids," "kids have to learn to deal with it on their own." But it's still a fairly prevalent view. As one child told a colleague of mine, "If I thought I could deal with this on my own, why would I come to you as an adult to help me?" I really believe strongly that it's adults' responsibility, not the responsibility of the victim certainly, and not just of the student body, to deal with bullying. It's an adult responsibility. (Chamberlain, 2003, p. 238)

Dan Olweus recommended a comprehensive approach to reducing bullying. His approach incorporated three kinds of measures: (a) measures at the school level, (b) measures at the classroom level, and (c) measures at the individual level. School level measures include such things as conferences, increased supervision, and teacher and parent groups directed at solving bullying problems. Class level measures include such things as creating classroom rules against bullying, using cooperative learning strategies, and developing common positive class activities. Measures at the individual level include talking to bullies, victims, and their parents and involving neutral students in solving problems (Olweus, 1993, p. 64).

Within two years of instituting a national program against bullying based on the Olweus's comprehensive approach, Norwegian schools showed an awe-inspiring 50% drop in bullying incidents. The goal of his program was "to reduce as much as possible -- ideally to eliminate completely -- existing bully/victim problems in and out of the school setting and to prevent the development of new problems" (Olweus, 1993, p.65). To achieve this lofty goal, administrators, teachers, parents, community and students were urged to develop "awareness and involvement" and suggested measures for putting that into practice were made across school levels, class levels and individual levels (p. 64). Susan Limber was the project director for a grant given to do the first expansive implementation of the Olweus approach in the United States. She sums up the approach as they applied it:

Bullying is a complex phenomenon. It's not something that will go away with an easy, one-shot solution. And I think we're mistaken if we believe that one school assembly is going to do the trick, and if the school does that, they can say, "Well, we dealt with bullying this year. Great, let's move on." In order to reduce bullying at a school requires a culture change at the school [sic], requires all the adults and the students together saying, "This is something that we don't accept, and we are going to look out for each other and report and talk about this as a form of peer abuse." And one doesn't get that climate or culture change overnight. So I think the most effective programs are those that are very comprehensive, that involve not just the students and a classroom teacher but every adult at a school. The bus drivers should feel they have a role in bullying prevention, a cafeteria worker, certainly the parents should feel they have a role in helping to create a bully-free atmosphere at the school. So I think the best programs out there, and the data I think would support this, are very comprehensive. (Chamberlain, 2003, p. 239)

Another approach frequently used by educators is a strictly curricular approach, incorporating lessons about the issue of bullying into a character education module within the context of a school-wide or classroom curriculum. Dr. Spencer Kagan, whose work with multiple intelligences and using cooperative groups in the classroom is well known, suggests that how teachers teach is just as important as what they teach regarding character education, and that cooperative groups can make strides toward solving school bullying and violence:

The best way to prevent school violence is to replace disparagement with respect, exclusion with inclusion, and lonely isolation with collaborative community. When teachers use cooperative structures in daily instruction, students experience being cared for by peers and caring for others. They practice responsibility, fairness, tolerance, teamwork, understanding and respect for different points of view. They learn to help one another. As students work together in teams, the "us" and "them" of in-groups and out-groups become an inclusive "we." The classroom becomes a respectful, inclusive community. No curriculum is more important. (Kagan, 2001, np)

Many schools combine these approaches to create the best mix for their district. The school district for which I compiled these statistics to develop an anti-bullying program ended up creating a comprehensive pilot program in their middle school that involved teacher and student education, an invitation to community involvement, guest speakers such as our Congressman and two former Miss America's who speak on bullying, a reward program for groups of students (students were in cohorts) who did not have bullying incidents within a school semester, and stepping up teacher presence in hallways and the cafeteria. Within one year, bullying incidents went down by 40%, and the district concluded that they would continue these efforts.

Bullying is a pervasive problem in public schools with far-reaching effects on victim, bully, bystander, the school community and the larger community. There are a number of treatments that schools and teachers employ to reduce bullying, including the disciplinary, comprehensive, and curricular approaches. No matter what approach a school uses, addressing bullying effectively is essential to improving education in the twenty-first century. Bullying, allowed too long now to direct the daily lives of the public school community, must be dethroned, and learning restored, as the true leader of every student's day.

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