The "School Did Nothing to Stop the Bullying" Lie

Why it's time to stop accusing schools of negligence in bullying-related suicide

Posted Aug 25, 2016

Declaration: I have the deepest sympathy for Daniel Fitzpatrick and his family. I have devoted my professional life to preventing such tragedies, and this article is another step in that mission.

The taking of a child’s life is a parent’s worst nightmare, and when it is taken by the child’s own hand because of a seemingly avoidable cause, the pain is unfathomable.

Either Staten Island has more than its share of high-profile suicides committed by bullied children, or I am simply more attuned to them, as I have been a Staten Islander since 1988.

In two unrelated incidents in 2012, 15-year-old Staten Island girls took their lives because they could no longer tolerate being bulled. Amanda Cummings jumped in front of a bus; Felicia Garcia, in front of a train.

The latest bullying-related suicide to make worldwide headlines happened a week ago, on Thursday, August 11. 13-year-old Daniel Fitzpatrick, a student at Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn, hung himself in the attic of his Staten Island home. Five weeks previously, Daniel had written a letter to the school (he never delivered it) complaining the faculty “did nothing” to make students stop bullying him, except for one teacher, a Mrs. D’Alora, who was “the nicest teacher ever she understood and did something but it didn’t last long [sic].”[1]

The grieving parents subsequently informed the local press that the school did nothing to make Daniel stop being bullied, and this accusation went viral. News outlets the world over carried the story of the boy who committed suicide because Holy Angels did nothing to stop kids from bullying him.

Daniel’s grief-stricken father posted a heart-wrenching video on Facebook blaming the school for not helping Daniel, calling his bullies “monsters” and condemning their parents for raising evil children. The video has thus far logged over half-a-million views.

The school and the Brooklyn diocese went on the defensive, claiming that that they did everything in their power to help Daniel with his bullying issue.

The public feud between Daniel’s parents and the school authorities has been escalating, as the parents are claiming that the school authorities leaked information that Mrs. Fitzpatrick has a drinking problem that contributed to the suffering that led to her son’s suicide.

Everyone believes the schools are negligent

The scenario of parents of bullied students accusing schools of negligence is common. In virtually every publicly aired bullying complaint, the parents claim the school either “did nothing” or “didn’t do enough” to make the bullying stop. The school representatives, in turn, inevitably claim that they did respond to the complaint, followed district policy, and did whatever they could to stop the bullying.

Few people, though, believe the schools. The stories are usually followed by a barrage of commenters, often themselves parents of bullied children, lamenting the “fact” that schools are doing nothing to make bullying stop. A posting on Reddit takes the accusation at face value: “Staten Island teen hangs self after Catholic school staff do nothing to stop bullying.”

Online “journalists” may further fuel passions against schools with inflammatory titles like, “Daniel Fitzpatrick suicide. Does Holy Angels have blood on its hands?”

How did school representatives respond? As reported in the Washington Post[2]:

“In a statement, Carolyn Erstad, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, said that ‘the principal and teachers at Holy Angels are heartbroken over the death of Daniel Fitzpatrick. I’ve spoken with them at length and can tell you that they truly cared for Danny and believe they did their best to help him…’

“But she [Erstadt] told The Post that under state guidelines, a school guidance counselor was allowed to meet with Daniel up to three times before requiring consent from his parents for more meetings.

“A counselor met with Daniel, but his parents declined to give consent for further meetings, the diocese spokeswoman said.”

The Tablet, the newspaper of the Brooklyn diocese, reported:

“Mike Long, chairman of the board of directors of Holy Angels Catholic Academy and longtime Brooklyn resident, said, ‘The faculty and the administration did everything humanly possible to help that young man. They not only cared, they loved Danny very much. There’s a lot more to this very sad story that people are unaware of.”

The Washington Post goes on to say:

“Rynecki, the family attorney, told The Post that Daniel’s death was a ‘tragic situation that should never have occurred.’ His firm, he said, is considering a possible wrongful death lawsuit against the school for failing to have ‘a proper bullying prevention program.’

"If there wasn’t such a program, he said — or if there was, but it wasn’t implemented appropriately — ‘we intend to hold them accountable for the loss of this young life.’”

Then:

“Academy officials say the school has a prevention program that trains teachers to recognize signs of bullying and to intervene in a constructive manner. The academy’s teachers have undergone two sessions of the training, which lasts one to two days in recent years, officials said. The training is based on the Olweus bullying prevention program.”

The false assumption

The entire basis of the negligence complaint against schools is the assumption that bullying would be stopped if schools would intervene.

But is there any evidence to support this assumption?

Researchers have been finding repeatedly that the most highly respected anti-bullying programs, developed by university-based psychological researchers, barely make a dent in the bullying situation in schools and often result in an increase. Several meta-analyses of school anti-bullying programs have been published since 2004, and they all find that at best they result in a 20% reduction in bullying and often result in an increase. One large-scale study found that children are more likely to be bullied in schools that have anti-bullying programs than in schools that don’t.

Furthermore, research has been finding that state anti-bullying laws are essentially worthless for reducing bullying. Even the most effective state laws reduce bullying complaints by only 20% – an 80% failure rate (assuming that bullying complaints is an accurate reflection of the absolute amount of bullying occurring).

Attorney Rynecki insists the school should have had a “proper” anti-bullying program and implemented it “appropriately.” But the school used the “most proper” program of all, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. It is the most widely used program in the world and is often referred to as “the gold standard.” It was developed by Prof. Dan Olweus, who actually created the scientific psychological field of bullying and is considered the "father of the anti-bully movement." The entire bullying field, including anti-bullying laws, is based on his assumptions, definitions and recommendations.

But research shows that the results of the Olweus program are dismal. The most massive, intensive study of the Olweus program ever conducted found that after two years of implementation “with fidelity,” there was a mere 12% reduction in the number of children who report being bullied twice or more per month. Results for most other leading programs are not much better and sometimes worse. So even if the Holy Angels Catholic School appropriately implemented the most proper program, there is an overwhelming chance that it would have failed to help Daniel. Did Attorney Rynecki bother to look into the statistics on anti-bullying programs before threatening to sue the school for failing to implement them appropriately?

Furthermore, Rynecki is an attorney. He has certainly witnessed court trials. Anti-bullying laws, as well as the Olweus-type programs, require schools to play courts of law for bullying complaints, conducing investigations and interrogations and trying to determine which child is guilty and and which is innocent. Has Rynecki found that the trial process causes animosities between litigants to decrease? Or is it more likely to make the two sides want to kill each other?

Anti-bullying interventions are not necessarily benign

The anti-bullying industry has promoted the belief that anti-bullying interventions are unmitigated goods, and that implementing them will only yield benefits.

There are few interventions in any realm that have only positive effects and no unintended negative ones. This is certainly true regarding bullying interventions. Researchers are ethically bound to do their best to present their findings objectively. When they conduct research studies on bullying prevention programs, they should be cognizant of possible negative effects, devise methods for detecting those negative effects and report them to the public. Additionally, they are to report the research findings accurately, without applying positive spin to promote their programs.

Unfortunately, the bullying research is sorely lacking in this area of ethical practice. It is almost impossible to find a study that intentionally searches for negative effects. When researchers do find negative effects, they tend to “explain them away” rather than view them as contra-indicators to the use of the program. They almost always emphasize the measures that reached statistical significance – for instance, changes in attitudes regarding bullying – even though those measures may have no reflection on actual improvement in the bullying problem, while downplaying measures that failed to reach statistical significance, even if those measures are the true indicators of improvement. For example, a study of the Steps to Respect program[3] says that “Overall, the evaluation found the program had positive impacts on fully half of the outcomes measured.” This sounds great, doesn't it? – something like a 50% improvement. In reality, the program produced no improvement in the bullying situation. The measures that had statistically significant changes were ones that measured attitudes toward bullying (e.g., thinking that bullying is wrong), which are irrelevant to actual reduction in bullying.

The abuses in their advertising materials will dwarf those in the published research reports. They will inevitably put a glowing spin on any results that sound favorable while ignoring any negative ones. For instance, the Olweus program promotes itself as “the most researched program,” as though the number of studies conducted on a program is a measure of its effectiveness, while failing to inform us that the results of the research are nothing to celebrate.

Perhaps even more surprising is that peer-reviewed journals, which are supposed to look for errors and bias in studies, publish self-serving studies by bullying researchers that obviously put positive spins on the questionable results of their programs while turning a blind eye to contra-indications.

Two causes of negative side effects

The following are two major causes of negative side effects of anti-bullying programs and policies.

1. Encouraging children to inform the school authorities when they are bullied. This is the most serious reason for the failure of anti-bullying programs and policies. Unless the authorities actually know how to make matters better, they are likely to make them worse. When authorities get involved investigating, interrogating, judging and punishing alleged bullies, hostilities are bound to escalate. If you carefully read news reports about bullied children who committed serious violence against themselves and/or others, you will discover that it almost always occurred after the school began intervening.

This is apparently what happened with Daniel Fitzpatrick. His letter is poorly written and lacking in punctuation, so it is not easy to understand events. But it seems that he was constantly telling teachers on several of his classmates and he couldn’t understand why they didn’t like him. He got into a fight with a boy named Johnny and got his (Daniel's) pinkie broken, and then Johnny was angry with Daniel for getting him in trouble with the school. Daniel and the other boys apparently were regularly trying to get each other in trouble with the teachers, and Daniel was angry because he was often the one to get in trouble though he saw himself as the victim. After all, there is no guarantee that judges will take your side in a dispute. If it’s your word against five’s, the judge is likely to believe the five. Finally, Daniel had all he could take and chose to end his misery by ending his life.

2. Informing children that words can hurt them forever. It is well known that the kids who become victims of relentless verbal taunting are the ones who get easily upset by words. Schools are now required to teach children how terribly hurtful words are. Daniel was upset because children called him fatso. Instead of teaching children that insults are no reason to get upset, anti-bullying lessons are unwittingly encouraging children to become hypersensitive to insults. Thus, they continue to get insulted.

The schools are probably telling the truth

When schools claim that they did take a bullying complaint seriously and followed protocol, they are probably telling the truth. Schools are required by law to address bullying complaints and follow mandated procedures. They aren’t foolish enough to ignore the complaints because they don’t want to get in trouble. It’s just that what they’re required to do isn’t likely to help.

Furthermore, there is the human aspect. Most teachers sincerely care about their students and want to help them. Just because they aren’t always capable of solving children’s problems does not mean they don’t try. Even Daniel reported that when Mrs. D’Alora, the one teacher who supposedly did “do something,” intervened on his behalf, the results were short-lived.

So why are intelligent people blaming schools for failing to put a stop to bullying when it’s readily available knowledge that the recommended programs and the mandated policies rarely work and often make bullying worse?

The origin of the lie

When students and parents accuse a school of having done nothing to stop bullying, they are usually lying. They’re not lying in the sense of intentionally trying to deceive people. They honestly believe what they’re saying. They’re lying in the sense that they are making statements that are glaringly false.

But it’s not the parents’ fault for lying. They are simply repeating the misinformation promoted by bullying researchers. Because researchers use numbers and statistics, the public – and especially journalists – have come to believe that researchers are the most reliable sources of truth. 

One of the ideas that bullying researchers have been promoting is that schools need to do more to make bullying stop. It is common to see the statement in research studies, "Schools need to be doing more to stop bullying." While this statement is treated like an axiom, it is in reality an opinion that is contraindicated by available data. A more correct statement would be, "Schools need to look for a different approach to bullying because what we're doing isn't working." The origin of the belief that schools are not doing enough about bullying is Prof. Dan Olweus himself. In his authoritative book, Bullying in School (page 67), Olweus says:

“Adult involvement in counteracting bully/victim problems is an essential general prerequisite to a school-based intervention program, and it is important that the adults do not view bullying as an inevitable part of children’s lives.”

Also:

“Even if the amount of bullying occurring in the school is relatively limited, there must be no complacency. The ultimate goal must be to eliminate bullying at the school altogether!”

These statements are, of course, simply Olweus' personal opinions, but since he is treated like a deity in the bullying field, everyone has come to accept them as gospel truth. And though Olweus himself never came close to his goal of achieving a complete elimination of bullying, he insists that adults in schools can and must do it. The producers of the Olweus program also proudly declare that:

“Dr. Olweus has for a long time seen the phenomenon of bullying in the context of human rights. As early as 1981, he proposed enacting a law against bullying in schools. He argued that it is a fundamental human right for a student to feel safe in school and to be spared the repeated humiliation implied in bullying.”[4]

Thanks to Prof. Olweus and the legions of bullying researchers who have accepted his views as absolute truth, everyone now believes that schools are at fault if bullying continues, and all schools can be sued for failing to make it stop.

My advice to the Holy Angel Catholic School

Dear school, you are trying to defend yourself by insisting that you did intervene to help Daniel, but that “there is more to the story than meets the eye.” Your implication is that there were other factors (family problems) than the bullying in school that drove Daniel to suicide.

Here is my advice.

1. Stop shifting responsibility for Daniel's suicide to the home. Doing so will be met with continued resistance by the parents and their lawyer. They will counter your claim and look for more proof that the school was indeed negligent. Furthermore, because almost everyone sides with the tragic victims of bullying, the public, including the press, is likely to give Daniel’s family their sympathy and you their scorn. If you acknowledge that being bullied on a daily basis is indeed enough to cause a student, even from a “problem-free” home, to choose suicide, you will elicit less resistance from the parents and the public.

2. Use the bullying research to your advantage. It is your most powerful evidence. It shows that the most revered programs and the most effective state laws fail to stop the great majority of bullying and can even cause intensification. How can Daniel’s suicide be the school’s fault when the mandated procedures have been proven ineffective? Any judge should be able to see the logic and acquit the school.

My advice to Daniel’s parents and their lawyer

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Attorney Rynecki, you are attacking the wrong party. You can be reasonably certain that the faculty of Holy Angels cared about Daniel, tried hard to make children stop bullying him, and followed mandated procedures. It’s just that those procedures don’t work well. And please realize it’s not your fault for believing the lie that the school “did nothing” to help your child. You have merely bought into what the bullying industry has sold you.

You have several children at home. Are they always nice to each other? If you are like most parents, you have at least one pair of children who constantly torment each other and all your efforts to stop them aren’t working. How can you expect a school to make hundreds of children always be nice to each other?

And why are you, Attorney Rynecki, threatening to sue Holy Angels for failing to "appropriately" use a "proper" anti-bullying program when doing so has perhaps a 12% chance of helping bullied students?

Here is my advice:

1. Don’t sue the school or the diocese or publicly blame them. If you do, they will have no choice but to defend themselves. They will do at least three things: 1) Present evidence that Daniel was at least partially at fault in the disputes between children, meaning that he was not simply “an innocent victim.” They will get Daniel’s “bullies” and their parents as well as faculty members to support that claim. 2) Blame you, the parents, for preventing the school from providing counseling help to Daniel. 3) Blame his family life for the suicide while publicizing unsavory details from child welfare reports.

2. Stop portraying Daniel’s bullies as “monsters” and their parents as creators of demons. It is understandable that you feel that way, but they are probably ordinary children, not much different from your own, who are caught up in dramas that have been exacerbated by counterproductive mandated anti-bullying policies. If you try to make them look bad, you can expect to see them trying to make you and Daniel look bad.

3. If your goal is to prevent other children from being in Daniel’s tragic situation, do some investigative research into the anti-bullying industry: 1) Ask why bullying continues to be a major problem despite almost two decades of massive anti-bully campaigning during which thousands of research studies have been published on bullying and every state has passed a tough school anti-bullying law. 2) Ask why the adolescent suicide rate has been increasing during the same period that society has been actively trying to protect children from bullying.[5] 3) Consider whether the mandated interventions make good psychological sense, or whether they may be inadvertently intensifying hostilities between students, between the students’ families, and between parents and the school. 4) Ask the researchers why they make exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of their programs while telling you nothing about the negative findings and possible unwanted side-effects. 5) Ask peer-reviewed journals why they publish such studies.

4. If you are still hell-bent on suing someone because someone needs to pay for your son’s death, sue the anti-bullying industry. The schools have not been negligent. It's the anti-bullying industry that's been neglecting to follow proper scientific and ethical protocol and misleading the public. Does the anti-bullying industry deserve to be the only industry above scrutiny by lawyers?

5. As they say, “The truth sets free.” Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, use some of the money you raised to memorialize Daniel in order to open the public’s eyes to the facts about the failing war against bullying. You will be doing more good for the world’s children than by attacking Daniel’s school and vilifying his bullies and their parents. When we expose what’s not working, we may begin finding what does.

How many more schools need to be unfairly dragged through the mud for the failure of the anti-bullying programs and policies they are required to follow? How long will it take till society recognizes and dispels the lie that “schools are doing nothing to stop the bullying?”

[1] http://heavy.com/news/2016/08/daniel-fitzpatrick-suicide-note-letter-bul...

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/08/16/a-boy-who-...

[3] http://2012.blueprintsconference.com/presentations/T10-C.pdf

[4] The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Scope and Sequence

[5] Suicide Rates Climb In U.S., Especially Among Adolescent Girls

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