Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Bullying Intervention Programs: Where Have We Gone Wrong?

5 common mistakes in bullying interventions and how to avoid them.

Text: Math is hard enough without a bully with image of student
Yesterday I read a news story about a school in New Brunswick, Canada that addressed a bullying issue in its school by hiring a full time educational aide to follow a student around who had been repeatedly targeted by his peers. This student reportedly had been bullied for his body size and his perceived sexual orientation, and the school’s best answer was to essentially assign him a bodyguard. This is emblematic of how many schools mistakenly frame the problem of bullying as an individual one and ignore some of the larger school culture issues that are involved.

Mistake #1: Individualizing the problem. Although it may appear that bullying and harassment might only be impacting a few highly visible ‘targets’ or ‘bullies’, these individuals and relationships do not emerge in a vacuum, and they are not the only ones impacted by the climate that allows bullying and harassment to persist.

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Mistake #2: Using one-time workshops or ‘canned’ intervention programs. I recently attended the annual meeting for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Vancouver where leading bullying researcher, Dorothy Espelage reported that 47 states have unfunded bullying mandates (you can read more about my experience at AERA here). This means that schools are required to address bullying, but they are not being provided funds or other forms of support to do this well. As a result many school districts will bring in a speaker to do a single workshop, or purchase a toolkit of resources that may or may not be used regularly, or appropriately, in order to show that they are complying.

No Place for Hate image
Mistake #3: Ignoring bias in cases of bullying and harassment. Most forms of bullying and all forms of harassment reflect and reinforce social biases such as: racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, and fatphobia. However, most schools shy away from naming these behaviors and teachers are not trained or confident in ways to effectively teach against these harmful prejudices that turn into acts of discrimination. In most cases of biased harassment, there are federal laws that protect students, and if schools fall short of their duty they can be subject to lawsuits with high financial damages (see Nabozny, Flores) as well as investigations and interventions from the Office for Civil Rights (see Tehachapi, CA and Anoka-Hennepin, MN). For more ideas on how to effectively address forms of bias, as well as the differences between bullying and harassment see my earlier post on gendered harassment.

Mistake #4: Writing policies with no ‘teeth’. Many school bullying policies just copy the language that their state legislation has required them to include. As a result the policies become meaningless words that collect dust on an administrator’s desk somewhere. In order to be meaningful, bullying and harassment policies need to have several elements including:

  1. Community consultation
  2. Clear language
  3. Implementation plan
  4. Reporting mechanisms and response protocols,
  5. An evaluation phase to ensure the policy is being implemented and applied appropriately

Without each of these elements, the policies will have little to no impact on transforming the culture of the school.

Mistake #5: Not actively involving students and other school community members in intervention programs. Many schools train only their teachers in any kind of response protocol or policy renewal, however students are central in making any transformation in school culture, as are key educational support personnel including: cafeteria workers, bus drivers, front office staff, and teachers’ aides. Although community consultation is time-consuming, it is an essential first step to creating long term and sustainable change.

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Solutions: If a school community is committed to transforming and challenging a culture of bullying and harassment, each of these areas needs to be addressed. I am usually very happy to go and work with a school community and pleased to be invited in to come and speak, however, usually it is just a one-time event, even though I do offer continued consultation and support to schools who contact me. We need to reframe how we are understanding the problem of bullying and harassment in schools and recognize that EVERYONE is impacted, so EVERYONE needs to be an active participant in the response.

For example, in the New Brunswick case, rather than investing funds in a full-time aide for an individual student, they may have considered hiring a more highly qualified support staff member half time to coordinate a whole school response program to bullying. This person could act as the on-site expert to train all the staff in an ongoing fashion, to handle reports and responses to acts of bullying and harassment, and coordinate the development of educational and curriculum-embedded discussions to help everyone in the school community recognize and respond to issues of bias, bullying and harassment. Another first step that doesn’t require funds to hire a staff person would be to have an administrator (such as a Vice Principal), head up a bullying or school climate working group with representation from teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community members. This group could meet regularly to determine the priorities of any intervention program based on the unique needs, issues, and resources in this school community.

The American Educational Research Association has just convened a Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying in U.S. schools, and I am honored to have been invited to participate. We are working to ensure the outcomes of this Task Force provide direct support and useful resources to educators all over the country. If you have ideas or suggestions for issues this Task Force should focus on, or ways to get the information out to a broader audience, please feel free to comment below.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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