The entire modern world is complaining that bullying is becoming an escalating problem in schools. Meanwhile, the effort to combat bullying in schools has also been escalating. No one seems to be putting two and two together. Isn’t it possible that bullying is escalating because the effort to fight it is escalating? The most intensive program of all is the classic Olweus program which is often referred to as the “gold standard.” What you are not likely to read anywhere, though I’ve heard similar things from many school personnel over the years, are things like the following:
I am an elementary teacher who is in charge of our new Olweus anti-bullying program. From some minor Internet searching, I couldn't find anything to dispute anti-bullying program successes. Finally, I found your site. The things you wrote about how such programs can make things worse were astonishing to me. Those things are exactly what are going on in my school now. The problem is worse. I feel like such a fool for championing this program. Thank you for being out there.
The reason the Olweus-inspired programs are so unreliable should be obvious to anyone who has studied human dynamics. For some reason that is unfathomable to me, I am the only one in the world who has written anything explaining what is wrong with the psychology underlying this program.
The intervention that has become the absolute darling of the anti-bully movement is enlisting bystanders to stand up for victims against bullies. It is widely touted as the most effective solution. But is this intervention really as wonderful as its proponents insist?
I’ve often said that this intervention is certainly better than punishing bullies, but it is far from an unmitigated good. It has both pluses and minuses. However, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone writing about the minuses, as though it can’t possibly have any.
Standing up against bullies hardly did 17 year-old Sharif Abdullah any good. The New York Daily News recently carried the tragic story of this teenager who was killed in Brooklyn after he stood up for the honor of a girl who was being taunted by other kids. And while we should certainly admire him for his bravery, the girl whom he stood up for, as the Daily News article relates, wasn’t in any apparent danger. She wasn't even upset. She said, "They were just being jerks .... I didn't even care." But Sharif did what the bullying experts recommend that we all do, and he paid with his life. His young life was wasted for no good reason.
How about the research? What does it show about the effectiveness of bystanders defending victims from bullies? A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, conducted by University College London in conjunction with US researchers, showed the results of a program called CAPSLE (Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment), which is centered on bystanders protecting victims from bullies. (Click here to get the University's official report on the study results.) A second group in the study used a different anti-bullying approach. A third group used none (though this is probably not accurate, because all schools do something about bullying, whether they use an organized formal program or just haphazardly handle bullying incidents and complaints.) Guess what happened? Bullying increased during the three-year trial period!
What’s truly remarkable, though, is that the program was declared a resounding success! Reminds me of the saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
How could anyone declare an anti-bullying program a success if bullying increased during the trial period?
Because bullying in the two comparison groups went up even more! The researchers concluded that social conditions in the geographic area in which the study was conducted created an increase in bullying in general, but since the bullying in the intervention group increased less than in the other two groups used for comparison, it was a wonderful success.
What exactly happened in this geographic area in the course of three short years? Had it been a stable middle class neighborhood in which everyone suddenly got fired and moved out, and violent gangs quickly moved in to take their place?
Perhaps. But maybe a better explanation is that what the other two groups did about bullying was even worse than what the intervention group did. After all, bullying isn’t escalating only in the area the study was done. Bullying seems to be escalating in all geographic regions that are battling bullying. But researchers don’t consider the possibility that the anti-bully efforts are the cause of the escalation in bullying. They are so certain that their anti-bully interventions must be beneficial that they will praise them as successes despite their own evidence to the contrary.
For those of you who are interested in a realistic assessment of the supportive-bystander approach rather than a gushy, blind love affair with it, I will provide it here.
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