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Sticks and Stones

UNC researchers drawn to topic of bullying, from what causes it to how to prevent it in both the perpetrator and the victim
By Anne Cumming Rice

Healing for Jess Stohlmann (BA-07) came very much like her wounding started — by telling the truth and sharing her story.

“From the time I came out in middle school all the way through high school, I experienced bullying that became pretty horrific and violent,” says Stohlmann, now 27 years old and director of the FIRE Within program for the Denver-based Carson J. Spencer Foundation.

Two years ago, Stohlmann went before Colorado state legislators to share what she went through. Ultimately her experience as a bullying victim motivated her to get involved in nonprofit work, first with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, then with the suicide-prevention organization she works for now.

Her testimony led Colorado to become one of the first states in the nation to pass anti-bullying legislation for K-12 schools. The law expands on safe schools policy to protect targeted groups, with a specific focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. At a minimum, schools are now required to implement anti-bullying policies and educate students and staff about bullying.

For Stohlmann, sharing her story in public was a turning point.

“It was a very healing experience for me,” she says. “I have more perspective about things now. I’ve realized not everyone I knew in high school was a participant in the bullying I experienced. There has been a lot of healing.”

The topic of bullying — from what causes it to how to prevent it in both the perpetrator and the victim — has touched a broad spectrum of lives in the UNC community. The issue transcends disciplines at UNC and has become a research interest and area of expertise for professors from sociology to educational leadership to criminal justice.

Not just a victim’s problem

The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton in 1999 put bullying on the forefront nationally, and dozens of school shootings since then have kept it in the spotlight.

“Columbine was a watershed moment for bullying,” said Sean O’Halloran, UNC professor and clinical director of the community counseling clinic offered by the Department of Counseling Psychology. “Bullying has been going on forever, but Columbine showed us it’s a public health problem.”

Most bullying experiences, however, do not lead to school shootings. Most are stories like Stohlmann’s — students who stand out because they are different and become targets of bullying, who can’t find an adult they can trust to help them, who often try to ignore the bullying in hopes it goes away.

“You hear the anecdotal story about students committing suicide because they were bullied. I knew some kids in school who did that,” said Brian Iannacchione, UNC professor of criminal justice. “As a researcher, I thought it might help to find out why people actually bully and try to bring about some change in how bullying is handled by schools.”

By definition, bullying is repetitive, unwanted, aggressive behavior using an imbalance of power — physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity — to control or harm others.

Iannacchione is in the midst of conducting research on the top reasons bullying occurs. He’s compiling answers from the National Crime Victimization survey, which has a component that asks participants about bullying — namely if they’ve been victims of it or perpetrators, and if yes to the latter, why.

Iannacchione hopes to take the research results to those who have power to effect change in how schools handle bullying.

“It’s not just a victim’s problem,” he says. “There has to be another answer besides, ‘Well, you’ll just have to figure out how to deal with this for 12 years.’ ”

Bullying has entered a new realm with cyberbullying, which happens through electronic technology including cell phones, computers and social media like text messaging, chats and websites. This type of bullying usually involves spreading rumors, harassment and creating fake websites and social media pages.

Bullying also happens beyond school age, but it’s most acute among young people, in part because it’s so readily accepted as part of growing up.

“A lot of people have the attitude, ‘If you’re bullied, it will teach you something. You’ll be stronger for it,’ ” says Mel Moore, UNC sociology professor who developed an online course about bullying. “I remember being devastated when I was growing up watching people I knew being bullied. It’s not good for the bullies, not good for those being bullied, and it’s not good for the people watching it happen.”

Changing the school culture

Moore developed a course for teachers about bullying after trying to get help for her son who was being bullied. She said she got little sympathy and discovered the school district had an anti-bullying program that wasn’t being used.

“It’s kind of like sexual harassment in the workplace,” Moore says. “Everyone used to think, ‘Oh, you can’t stop it. It’s never going to go away.’ But once laws and rules changed and they developed zero tolerance for it, people knew it wasn’t acceptable. The culture and mind-set has to change in the same way with bullying.”

In the late 1990s before the shootings at Columbine, Linda Vogel was on the forefront of changing the bullying culture in the school where she was principal in Illinois.

“The community had a lot of adult bullies, which translated into a lot of kid bullies,” says Vogel, UNC associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “To make up for feelings of lack of self-esteem, they would be aggressive and try to dominate others. We set about to change that culture.”

Changing it proved to be challenging, Vogel says. She had to train teachers who tended to pass off bullying as “kid stuff,” she says. The school started a peer-mediation program, in which students who were having a conflict could sit down and talk it out before the issue escalated to the point they’d be sent to the principal’s office.

“Unless you sit down with kids and provide a forum that says, ‘We are going to listen to you,’ and do something to change the whole school culture, bullying will continue,” Vogel says.

Now as a professor who trains principals and superintendents, Vogel says many administrators today are so focused on accountability and standardized testing that social issues like bullying tend to get overlooked. Many school districts nationwide have some type of anti-bullying program, but not all are ongoing throughout the year.

“I have no doubt that kids feel very frustrated that adults aren’t responding enough to the bullying going on,” Vogel says. “In the competition for time and resources, making sure we get kids to a certain test-score level takes away from some of the time we could be spending on relational issues.”

Calling it out

O’Halloran’s interest in the issue of bullying was piqued by a doctoral student who did her dissertation on relational aggression. Prior to that, she encountered people who came for help at the community clinic who had psychological wounds that could be traced back to being bullied as children.

“They may have a history of not being respected and not being able to trust people,” O’Halloran says. “And the more they talk about it, the more they realize the root of it is being bullied.”

In presentations about bullying to schools and other audiences, O’Halloran shares that the most important thing students can do to prevent bullying is to call it out.

“Don’t cower under it, don’t show the bully you’re upset,” she says. “If it’s an insult, say something like, ‘Thanks for the feedback.’ If it’s a threat, say in a loud voice, ‘It’s not OK to talk to me that way.’ ”

Calling it out also means knowing the difference between tattling and telling, says Rebecca McCreary (EdS-05), who is in private practice as a school psychologist in the Denver area.

“Teachers will always say, ‘Don’t tattle,’ ” McCreary says. “It’s tattling only if your motivation is to get someone else in trouble. It’s called telling if you’re trying to get help for yourself. Therefore it’s OK to tell an adult you’re being bullied.”

Her practice, at www.socialpathways.com, offers social skills workshops for children ages 5-11 at various recreation centers in the Denver metro area. To deal with bullying, kids in her workshops learn how to be self-confident, how to use relaxation techniques to respond to a bully calmly and how to defuse anger.

Stohlmann looks back on her experience and wishes she’d been more articulate to defend herself against bullying. But she also wishes she’d had adults and peers she could trust.

“I really needed adults to intervene when it was happening,” she says. “But I also didn’t have a support system I could turn to. A big part of it for young people is figuring out who they can reach out to and learning how to tell their story. Then they’ll realize they are not alone and they can get through it.” NV


What is Cyberbullying?

Bullying has taken on an entirely new dimension with what’s become known as cyberbullying. This sophisticated, often anonymous form of bullying is becoming increasingly common. The combination of the anonymity of the Internet and tech-savvy children and teenagers makes cyberbullying much different than your typical playground bullying.

Cyberbullying happens via the Internet, digital technologies or mobile phones. It involves repeated threats, harassment, humiliation or embarrassment through various means, including:

  • The spreading of rumors through text messages, instant messaging, blogs, etc.
  • Taking photos of kids in locker rooms and bathrooms and sending or posting them.
  • Creation of fake social media pages.
  • Stealing passwords to impersonate a victim on IM screens, chat rooms, etc.
  • Verbal abuse through interactive gaming.
  • Sending porn and other junk e-mail.
  • Sending viruses, spyware and other hacking programs to victims.
  • Cyberbullying by “proxy.” This uses a third party who unknowingly becomes a participant in the bullying. This can happen when the bully uses “warning” or “notify wars” on an IM screen to make it look like the victim is doing something wrong. With enough warnings, the ISP provider can remove the victim’s account.

According to www.stopcyberbullying.org, cyberbullying involves minors on both sides. Once adults become involved, it’s called cyber-harassment or cyberstalking.

“Kids who are cyberbullied are often bullied in other ways, too,” said Sean O’Halloran, UNC professor and clinical director of the university’s community clinic offered by the Department of Counseling Psychology.

And children and teens who cyberbully one moment may become the victim the next. Oftentimes kids involved in cyberbullying don’t even realize they are coming across as bullies.
Prevention is tricky. Schools that get involved in trying to prevent something that happens off campus usually get sued for overstepping their authority and violating free-speech rights. Parents can help prevent cyberbullying by teaching kids about respect, taking a stand against bullying and about the consequences – losing their ISP or IM accounts.

Kids don’t usually tell their parents about a cyberbullying incident because they fear their parents will go to the bully’s parents or take away Internet privileges. But if you know your child is being cyberbullied, www.stopcyberbullying.org offers the following advice:

  • Consider two things: Is your child at risk of physical harm or assault? And how are they handling the attacks emotionally? Cyberbullying can be even more harmful than typical playground bullying because it has the potential to be seen by millions of online users. Don’t brush it off.
  • If there is any indication that personal contact information has been posted online, or any threats are made to your child, go immediately to your local law enforcement agency. Take a print-out of all instances of cyberbullying to show them, but note that a print-out is not sufficient to prove a case of cyber-harassment or cyberbullying. You'll need electronic evidence and live data for that.
  • Let the law enforcement agency know that the trained cyber-harassment volunteers at WiredSafety.org will work with them (without charge) to help them find the cyberbully offline and to evaluate the case. It is crucial that all electronic evidence is preserved to allow the person to be traced and to take whatever action needs to be taken. The electronic evidence is at risk for being deleted by the Internet service providers unless you reach out and notify them that you need those records preserved. The police or volunteers at WiredSafety.org can advise you how to do that quickly.
  • Using a monitoring product, like Spectorsoft, collects all electronic data necessary to report, investigate and prosecute your case if necessary. While you may never need it, the evidence is automatically saved by the software in a form useable by law enforcement when you need it without you having to learn to log or copy header and IP information.


Repetitive, unwanted, aggressive behavior using an imbalance of power — physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity — to control or harm others.

verbal (name-calling, taunting, inappropriate comments)

social (leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public)

physical (hitting, kicking, tripping/
pushing or taking and breaking someone’s things)

Bullying is not the same as peer conflict, teen dating violence, hazing, gang violence, harassment or stalking.

Bullies aren’t always stronger or bigger than those being bullied. In many cases, the child who becomes a bully is also being bullied himself, either at home or by someone else at school.

An estimated 160,000 children miss school each day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.

1 in 7 students in grades K-12 is either a bully or a victim of bullying.

About 19 percent of students in Colorado report being bullied on school grounds.

56 percent of students have witnessed some type of bullying at school.

71 percent of students report bullying as a problem at their school.

1 in 7 students in grades K-12 is either a bully or a victim of bullying.

Harassment and bullying have been linked to 75 percent of school shootings.

25 percent of youth who reported being bullied in the previous year attempted suicide compared to 11 percent of students who were not bullied.

Youth who were bullied were also more likely to report being in a fight or having used alcohol or marijuana.

Sources: www.stopbullying.gov
Colorado Trust, 2009 Colorado Healthy Kids


Tips for dealing with bullying

For those being bullied:

Call it out – Look bully calmly in the eye and say in a loud voice, “It’s not OK for you to talk to me that way.”

“Own it” – Sometimes it’s OK to agree with what the bully meant as an insult. “Yeah, I guess my outfit doesn’t really match today. Oh, well.” Agreeing with it shows you’re not bothered by it.

Find an adult to talk about what’s happening. If one adult doesn’t listen, tell another one.

If you’re being cyberbullied, show inappropriate text messages, etc., to an adult who can do something about it.

For parents:

Talk to your child about what’s going on. Don’t dismiss bullying as a normal rite of passage that kids just have to figure out how to deal with on their own.

Talk to your child’s teacher. If the teacher doesn’t take it seriously, go to the school principal.

Encourage your child toward healthy self-confidence. Talk about techniques to defuse anger and intimidation. “Standing up for yourself” doesn’t mean responding with violence.

Beware of going directly to the bully’s parents. This might actually makes things worse.

If you suspect your child is a bully, have a conversation about how your child feels when he/she is being bullied. One of the most important issues with helping bullies themselves is increasing their empathy for others.