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Too Cruel for School: The Rise of Bullying

Turning the Tide

Like Jill Jones, parents across the nation are uncertain about how to deal with bullying. Experts say the worst thing adults can do is to ignore it. "There's a common—and very mistaken—belief that it's okay," says Julie Hertzog, director of the Bullying Prevention Project at Pacer, a Minneapolis-based organization for children with disabilities. "Adults say things like, 'It's a normal part of childhood' or 'Boys will be boys,' but that's just plain wrong. And it's not only the targets who suffer. Kids who witness bullying are uncomfortable as well. They often want to help but don't know how to—and fear they could be next."

But as teachers and administrators can tell you, creating a safe environment for students isn't easy. One of the oldest and most respected bullying prevention programs used by K-12 schools across the country is Olweus, which focuses on improving peer relations by identifying and dismantling the group interaction that gives rise to abuse. Research has found that when onlookers provide an audience for bullying by standing around, watching or laughing, they unwittingly encourage and prolong the behavior. The Olweus program, which includes teacher training and community outreach, tries to curb bullying by discouraging "hangers on" from participating. "We help kids recognize that when there is an incident everyone who is involved—or even aware of it—plays a role," says Marlene Snyder of Olweus, who conducts training sessions for teachers to help kids stop bullying as it happens. "Some kids are disengaged onlookers, others know better but enjoy watching, and some egg the bully on. We teach them that the best way to defend others is not to give your power to someone who wants to harm others." Olweus, which costs about $1,500, is paid for by school districts, parent groups, federal grants or private foundations. Many consider it a worthy investment, including schools in California and Virginia, which saw an average 15 percent decrease in bullying after one year.

But even the best of such programs are no silver bullet. In a study published this year, longtime bullying researchers Susan Swearer and Dorothy Espelage found that the most effective interventions are "whole school" approaches that include establishing rules and consequences for bullying, teacher involvement, conflict resolution strategies, classroom curriculum and individual social skills training. "All parts of the school should be brought into the conversation," says Swearer. "What's more, special attention and training must be given to some perpetrators to help them come up with socially acceptable ways of dealing with peers." But none of the programs she and Espelage studied really snuffed out abuse; while one-third of them improved kids' level of knowledge, attitude and perceptions about bullying, they did not reduce the number of incidents. Even more disheartening, some remedies—like the assembly-type program that encourages children to write down the names of aggressors and hand slips of papers to the teacher—can actually contribute to a climate of shaming and blaming that fosters bullying.

Some experts believe it takes even more of a village to curb cruelty and that students should participate in setting limits. Sam Chaltain, author of American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community (Rowman & Littlefield Education), believes that bullying is a sign that young people—even high-achieving ones—feel invisible, unconnected and unsure about how to act appropriately. "Like any democratic environment, a school community should have civic ground rules that govern personal behavior. That will help kids understand what is acceptable to say and do so they can become their own anti-bullying program."

Fortunately for Jill Jones, Kacey's elementary school made the right moves. "Her grade had already been organized into teams, so I called the teacher who was her team leader and related what had happened in the cafeteria," Jill says. "This man was not only an excellent instructor but also a supersensitive dad of four kids. He was outraged." The teacher called an emergency meeting of the team leaders, who met with each of the girls involved and laid down the law. They would be suspended if they picked on Kacey again, conspired against her in any way or were even caught talking about the incident. "Believe it or not, the bullies were duly chastened and never seemed to hold it against my daughter," says Jill. Kacey is now a thriving student with plenty of friends. "She's lucky because the teachers at her school embodied the social lessons that they were teaching," says Jill. In other words, they walked the talk. And that made all the difference.