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Children's Voice Article, March/April, 2004

The Bully Stops Here

By Scott Kirkwood

A handful of bullies can pose quite a problem to students and teachers alike, but new approaches are changing the school environment.

The image of the schoolyard bully confronting a fellow student on the playground is familiar to many generations of children. As adults, most of us look back on those run-ins as one more unavoidable part of growing up, like babysitters or pimples.

But psychologists and educators in Europe have known for years that bullying can have larger, more long-term effects, and the revelation is starting to garner more attention in the United States. Fortunately, research shows that bullying can be stopped--or at the very least, dramatically reduced--with comprehensive approaches that change the school environment.

Stop Bullying Now, a campaign that, at press time, was set to be campaign launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, sets out to address many myths about bullying, which often leaves children to suffer needlessly and leave parents at a loss for solutions.

The program's coordinators define bullying as "aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance in power or strength." Bullying can take many forms, such as hitting or punching, teasing or name-calling, intimidation through gestures or social exclusion, and insulting messages delivered by phone or e-mail. Although boys tend to use physical approaches that are more overt, whereas girls pursue more subtle methods of bullying, like e-mail messages and social exclusion, the methods cross gender and age groups.

Of course, it's not always easy to spot bullying, and even when students, parents, or teachers recognize it, they may not be convinced the issue is worth much attention. (See "Adult Responses to Bullying," below.) But that's a mistake.

"Part of the problem is the myth that bullying is okay as long as it's not happening to me," says Susan Swearer, Assistant Professor of School Psychology at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln and coeditor of Bullying in American Schools: A Social Ecological Perspective on Prevention and Intervention. "Some people think bullying makes kids tougher. I've even heard some teachers say, 'I was bullied as a kid, I turned out okay.' But people need to realize there are serious ramifications for children who are bullied--it's a real social problem that has to be taken seriously."

"Research shows that bullying can have some very significant negative effects on kids who are bullied," says Susan Limber, Associate Director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at South Carolina's Clemson University, and a consultant on the Stop Bullying Now campaign. "Kids who are bullied are more likely to be depressed or anxious, suffer low self-esteem, report feeling unwell--for instance, suffering from migraine headaches--and to admit to thoughts of suicide, so there's good reason to be concerned about the kids who are bullied, particularly those who are picked on consistently."

Of course, the bullies themselves probably aren't in the best mental and emotional state either, and they're more likely than their peers to be involved in other troublesome behaviors that are violent or antisocial.

"There's a dramatic increased risk of involvement with the criminal justice system for those kids with experience as bullies," says physician Howard Spivak, who has been involved in youth violence prevention efforts in Boston for 20 years and is the author of Murder Is No Accident. "In fact, both bully and bullied are at particularly high risk for behavior problems leading to criminal justice issues and mental health problems."

The research bears it out: A 1999 study published in D.S. Elliott's Blueprints for Violence Prevention reveals that nearly 60% of boys who were classified by researchers as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by age 24, compared with only 23% of the boys who were not characterized as bullies or victims; 40% of the boys who were bullies had three or more convictions by age 24, compared with 10% of those who were neither victims nor bullies.

Some accounts of bullying in the popular media highlight the link between bullying and more extreme forms of violence, such as suicides or school shootings like those at Columbine High in Colorado. Thankfully, such incidents remain rare, but there's no question that bullying detracts from the educational environment, interferes with students' learning, and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Why Is Everybody Always Picking on Me?

So what's the solution? Parents and teachers who recognize the effects of bullying on its victims often feel handcuffed when it comes to intervening. It's not always easy catching a bully in the act, and children being bullied frequently fail to report the activity out of fear of further harassment or being labeled a tattletale. When parents and teachers finally act, they're often left with ineffective interventions that begin with punishing the bully, which may not be the best move.

"When kids display concerning behaviors, they're waving a red flag that needs a response, and punishment is rarely the appropriate response," Spivak says. "Unacceptable behaviors can't be tolerated and clearly need to be addressed, but there's good evidence that therapeutic approaches and prevention approaches are far more beneficial and more successful. We have to look sympathetically at kids and what they're doing, not punitively. Too often, the bullies get punished and the kids who are bullied are ignored."

Many schools have taken precisely that approach by instituting zero-tolerance policies, which may have good intentions but often lead to other problems.

"There probably are a small number of cases where safety demands that children be excluded from a school environment, but the number of kids involved in bullying is pretty large," Limber says, and these children have to be educated somewhere. "In fact," she continues, "zero-tolerance policies often have a chilling effect on kids' and adults' willingness to report bullying. If you're afraid you're going to get a student kicked out of school for bullying, you might not even talk about it," allowing the bullying to continue.

Another popular approach to bullying is peer mediation, but experts believe it can do more harm than good. "Bullying is not a conflict between peers on equal footing," Limber says. "It's a form of victimization, like spousal abuse or child abuse, which you would never try to mediate. Mediating a bullying situation may revictimize a child who's been bullied by forcing him to face his tormentor. And it can send the message to both parties that each of them is partly right, and each is partly wrong, and that the students just need to work out their conflict. That's really not the right message to send."

Climate Change

"Bullying is not something that's going to go away with a quick fix, like a school assembly or the three-week curriculum taught in a health class," Limber warns. "Bullying is a complex phenomenon, and what seems to work best are fairly comprehensive schoolwide approaches that really focus on trying to change the climate of the school."

In fact, because bullying is so complex, it's often hard to differentiate between bully and bullied, which makes the notion of changing the overall climate more appealing and more effective. "There is no simple dichotomy between bully and victim," Swearer explains. "Kids don't fall into these neat categories of bullying and victimization--it's often a continuum, and our intervention techniques need to address the complexity."

"I don't even like to use the word victim," Spivak says. "First off, there are no clear-cut definitions, and there are a significant number of kids who [are] both [bully and victim]. Secondly, the word victim implies a sense of inevitability and powerlessness, and part of helping kids who are bullied is creating a sense of empowerment that they're not helpless, that there are things they can do or learn to respond to these situations. Victim-assailant labels also fall into the criminal justice way of thinking, which says an assailant is to be punished. We're better off presenting the issue in terms of the behavior."

The recent report Bullying Prevention Is Crime Prevention, released by Fight Crime Invest in Kids, points to several programs that have shown promising results in minimizing aggressive and deviant behavior among teens and tweens, but the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is garnering the most attention.

Developed in Norway after a number of teen bullying victims committed suicide in 1983, the Olweus program has been implemented in several hundred schools in the United States and worldwide. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the program produced a 50% reduction in bullying and other antisocial behavior in Norway, and a 20% reduction in a South Carolina program instituted in 39 schools. SAMHSA has designated Olweus as a model program because it has also reduced alcohol use and other risky behaviors.

"The Olweus program is effective because it provides a systematic approach to change the culture of a school so that it's just not cool to bully other kids," according to Xavier Morales, Associate Director of the Arizona Prevention Resource Center, which has joined with other public entities and private companies in Arizona to deliver Olweus to dozens of area elementary and middle schools.

"The program puts the responsibility squarely on adults," Morales continues, "and it works on three levels--schoolwide, classwide, and on an individual level. At the schoolwide level, a set of rules are adopted by the school--for instance, 'We will not bully other students,' 'We will try to help students who are bullied,' 'We will include students who might be left out.'"

Once every student has agreed to abide by these rules, teachers enforce them in the classroom. A schoolwide committee of teachers and administrative personnel creates a set of sanctions for students who fail to follow the rules, with increasing severity for multiple infractions.

Watchful Eyes

"Many of these kids [doing the bullying] lack adequate supervision at home and have no rules to guide their behavior," Limber says, "so it's important to send the message consistently and firmly--but not in a hostile way--that we're all watching your behavior, these are our expectations, and these are the consequences for violating the rules. That can often go a long way toward changing the reward structure for these kids."

The school's committee also helps teachers share information about students who are bullying or being bullied so that incidents that might otherwise seem isolated can be addressed quickly. To make sure the program isn't simply a cookie-cutter approach, school officials administer a questionnaire beforehand to find out how bullying affects students and how severe the problem is--both of which also help in the later evaluation stages as well.

Some schools hold an assembly to kick off the initiative, others set aside time for teachers to speak with students in their classrooms. Essay and poster contests are common; one school even developed a song on the theme--the only requirement is to find a way to get students involved and make sure they buy into the process. And it doesn't end there.

"We also ask teachers to spend 15 - 20 minutes a week discussing bullying with their classes to reinforce the issue, to build awareness about bullying, and to build empathy among [students who may end up being] bystanders," Morales says. Students will often participate in role-playing scenarios so they can learn how to handle or avoid difficult situations.

Because educators are often bombarded with special programs like this, which seem only tangential to learning, organizers encourage teachers to incorporate bullying into the curriculum at times when it's easy to do so--for instance, many of the novels students are already reading in their English classes contain bullying messages, and the teacher need only ask the students to explore them a little more closely.

Because the Olweus program recognizes bullying is only a symptom of an unhealthy school environment, the only way to end it is to get every student to commit to changing that environment permanently.

"One reason a lot of kids don't report bullying is their fear that it will just make the situation worse, because the adults will go to the bully," and then they'll be in even more trouble with the bully, Limber says. "But the child being victimized is rarely the only one who's aware of the bullying, so if you're sending the messages to all kids in school that they need to report all bullying they observe, and other adults are keeping an eye out as well, you can confront a child who is bullying and say, 'I have observed or I have gotten reports from many of your classmates that this is going on,' and you're not putting the onus on the child who is being bullied--it's really the bully's peers and the adults in the school who are saying, 'This is wrong and it's got to stop,' and that can really help."

By removing the emphasis on the bully-victim relationship and focusing on the overall climate of the school, adults also have a chance to move away from simply punishing a bully and toward a more sympathetic discussion of the issues facing that child.

"With the classroom and schoolwide work, a lot fewer interventions will be needed, but if teachers do see bullying, they'll need to intervene at the individual level," Morales says. "We provide information and scripts so a teacher or staff member can deal with a bullying situation in that teachable moment, by talking to the person who is doing the bullying, supporting the victim of the bullying, and also engaging the bystander. The key is for all adults to deliver a consistent message that bullying is not acceptable."

The program goes beyond the walls of the school, too. One of the rules set out at the beginning of the program is that any time a student sees anyone being bullied, he or she will tell an adult at home and an adult at the school. Program organizers also visit local Boys & Girls clubs, YMCAs, and other local afterschool hangouts to let those youth workers know about the program and reinforce the message kids are getting in the classroom.

And it seems to be working. According to the Arizona Prevention Resource Center, the Olweus programs like the one being implemented in Arizona have shown 50% - 70% reductions in students' reports of bullying behavior and victimization, as well as reductions in their reports of general antisocial behavior such as vandalism, fighting, theft, alcohol use, and truancy. The program is relatively inexpensive, averaging about $7 per student per school year, a cost that decreases as the number of students increases. Members of the Arizona partnership are now looking to expand the program statewide with the help of corporate sponsors like American Express and others.

In the end, the success of Olweus and many other antiviolence programs rests squarely with the community. As educators continue to see the many ways these issues affect their ability to teach, as law enforcement officials see how early interventions can prevent crime among older teens and younger adults, and as public health officials recognize that suicide and violence pose the most lethal threats to young people, professionals from multiple disciplines are coming together to change the school, the community, and the way we look at violence among our youngest generation.

Scott Kirkwood is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

Warning Signs

Possible warning signs a child is being bullied:
  • Comes home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, or other belongings.

  • Has unexpected cuts, bruises, or scratches.

  • Has few, if any, friends with whom she spends time.

  • Seems afraid of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers.

  • Has lost interest in schoolwork or suddenly begins to do poorly in school.

  • Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he comes home.

  • Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical ailments.

  • Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams.

  • Appears anxious or suffers from low self-esteem.

Source: Stop Bullying Now,

Adult Responses to Bullying

  • Adults are often unaware of bullying problems. In one study, 70% of teachers believed that teachers "almost always" intervene in bullying situations, but only 25% of students agreed with this assessment.

  • Twenty-five percent of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying or put downs and consequently intervene in only 4% of bullying incidents.

  • Students often feel that adult intervention is infrequent or unhelpful and fear that telling adults will only bring more embarrassment from bullies.

  • In a survey of students in 14 Massachusetts elementary and middle schools, more than 30% believed adults did little or nothing to help in bullying incidents.

2004 Stop Bullying Now. Reprinted by permission. Sources for statistical information are available online at

Online Resources
    This resource for students, parents, and professionals features fact sheets, role modeling
    exercises, animated "webisodes," and public service announcements.
    Features information on bullying-prevention programs such as the Olweus Program, Linking the
    Interests of Families and Teachers, and The Incredible Years.

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