Duncan says school staff need to set the right example. Copyright: Doktory
Calling attention to one of education’s fastest growing problems, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Aug. 11 spoke at the nation’s first “Bullying Prevention Summit” to incite a call to action, as well as invite government officials, behavioral experts, and education organizations to brainstorm scalable solutions to bullying in classrooms nationwide.
“This is the first real collaboration between government agencies to help combat the growing issue of bullying,” said Duncan. “Why these agencies haven’t come together before today is a good question. We’re hoping this summit will be the first step in creating a sustained effort against bullying in schools.”
The two-day summit, being held at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., is intended to help school leaders and government officials pool their knowledge on bullying and then turn this knowledge into plans for action.
In his opening speech, Duncan said that bullying is not a fad, but rather a problem that, if left unattended, will escalate.
According to the federal Education Department (ED), in 2007 one in three students in middle or high school reported being bullied. Nearly 3 million teens said they were physically abused by their peers, and 1 million teens reported their property stolen or damaged by bullies.
“People say the phrase ‘gateway drugs’; well, I see bullying as ‘gateway behavior’ that later in a student’s life can lead to high school dropout, drugs, and criminal behavior,” Duncan said.
“Along with physical abuse and bullying in the school, students are now also reporting an increase in cyber bullying and bullying through ‘sexting,’” he added.
“Our inability as adults to stop bullying in Chicago schools is a failure that haunts me,” he said. “One of the biggest steps we’re taking at the department is to identify research on what works best to combat bullying and helping to support those tactics and programs.”
What the experts are saying
Dr. Philip Rodkin, an associate professor of child development in the Departments of Education Psychology and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, spoke at the summit and shared some insight on the issue.
According to Rodkin, many people believe that bullying is just an act of aggression, but it’s important to understand that aggression and bullying are two different beasts.
“Aggression is more of a personality trait, where bullying is a learned action, usually resulting from an unstable home environment or from having experienced bullying by another,” explained Rodkin.
“Bullying is about social capital, not just physical power—it’s a relationship of control,” he added.
According to Rodkin, many schools aren’t actively combating bullying because teachers already have enough on their plates.
“Schools need to ask every student, ‘Are you being bullied, and if so, by whom?’ They really need to formally and objectively know the social dynamic of their school; yet, so often, administrators and teachers don’t take the time to know, because they either consider the problem to be outside the school’s jurisdiction or have more pressing concerns, like standardized testing.”
“Excuses like ‘kids will be kids,’ or ‘this is not an education issue,’ or ‘oh, it was just a bad joke,’ are not acceptable,” said Duncan. “The culture of bullying has been shrouded in myth and misunderstanding for far too long.”
By asking students about their peer social ecology, Rodkin said, schools and parents will begin to answer important questions, such as “Who is accountable when one child is being abused by another?” and “Are we modeling positive values and moral behavior around children?”
“Schools need to cultivate an environment of trust and accountability for their students,” said Duncan. “Victims of bullying aren’t ‘tattletales;’ they’re being responsible. We, as adults, must also present consistent and sustained model behavior for children.”
Rodkin said another issue that parents need to monitor is cyber bullying.
“Aggression is a contagious behavior that operates through social networks, both in school and outside of school,” he said.
According to research conducted by Dr. Sameer Hinduja, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, co-director of the Cyber Bullying Research Center, and another guest speaker at the summit, approximately 15 to 35 percent of students have been victims of cyber bullying.
Research also shows that 10 to 20 percent of students have admitted to cyber bullying others; girls are as involved, or more involved, than boys; and involvement seems to peak in middle school (grades 6-8).
What to do now
“A testament to how badly bullying can affect someone is by how adults can recount, even decades later, with vivid feeling and detail, how they were bullied by someone in school,” said Duncan. “Bullying leaves scars that may never heal, thanks to its culture of silence and shame.”
According to Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the public health sector has multiple levels of bullying prevention and response. These strategies include:
• Individual: interventions and counseling for children who bully and are bullied.
• Classroom: lessons to foster social-emotional skills and competencies, effective communication, and strategies for preventing bullying; effective classroom management.
• School-wide: a system of positive behavior support; a common set of expectations for positive behavior across all school contexts; involvement of all school staff in prevention activities; effective supervision; clear anti-bullying policies.
• Family: strategies for supporting children involved in bullying; open communication to promote disclosure of bullying; constructive role for parents in bullying prevention.
• Community: awareness campaigns that encourage intervention and prevention; community involvement in prevention activities and programs.
“There also needs to be a seamless system of support in schools,” said Bradshaw. “You can’t just have a separate program for each individual problem; otherwise, teachers will become overstressed and implementation will be faulty. Instead, social-emotional learning, bullying prevention programs, student services, school mental health programs, suicide prevention, special-education assessments and referral, and effective classroom management all need to work together. This way, not only will bullying be prevented, but a host of other issues [might be addressed as well].”
Dr. Susan Limber, a faculty member within the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and Professor of Psychology at Clemson University, was sick and could not attend the summit; however, Bradshaw presented Limber’s suggestions, citing ways schools can take action against bullying.
According to Limber, there are 67 anti-bullying programs in 42 states, but only a few states require implementation of these programs.
“State laws on bullying require that school officials establish and enforce policies against bullying in public schools, but these policies vary in definitions and requirements,” said Bradshaw.
These state programs can include policies that call for reporting on bullying incidents, an investigation in these incidents, parental notification, discipline for children who bully, training for teachers, and prevention strategies.
Duncan said that while severe cases of bullying that lead to criminal offenses must be punished, a school’s code of conduct should not be all punitive; instead, schools must reward good behavior, too.
“Many bullying cases, especially in regards to race, sex, and disabilities, can violate civil-rights laws, and, in some severe cases, violate state and federal laws; however, it’s not my intention to try and lock up our nation’s youth. Instead, we have to prevent bullying from ever happening and/or escalating to that extreme,” he said.
Limber’s research suggests that many schools are implementing faulty policies, which include zero tolerance policies, conflict resolution and peer mediation, group treatment for children who bully, and short-term solutions.
“Zero tolerance policies mean suspension or expulsion for students, which often leads to a dead-end road for bullies, and many teachers are hesitant to report this behavior because of the harsh consequences,” said Bradshaw.
Limber also suggests that conflict resolution is not adequate, because in many cases bullying is not the result of a conflict between students, but rather aggressive abuse sustained over a long period of time.
She also suggests that group treatment for bullies can actually unite them together in their bullying, and short-term programs or solutions are not adequate, because bullying is not a short-term problem.
Instead, Limber suggests these 10 best practices:
- Focus on the school’s social environment.
- Assess bullying through formal assessments.
- Garner staff and parent support.
- Have a representative team coordinate efforts.
- Train all staff.
- Establish and enforce rules and policies.
- Increase adult supervision in “hot spots.”
- Intervene consistently and appropriately.
- Focus some class time on prevention.
- Continue efforts over time.
Duncan said his experience as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools taught him that after-school programs are a great way to curb bullying.
“Most school violence happens after school ends,” he said. “By providing structured, positive activities after school, schools are reducing the number of wandering kids on the streets.”
The federal government is channeling money to programs that will engage students in learning, as well as after-school programs in the most at-risk schools, as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Duncan said. Programs that involve parents also will be funded.
Duncan suggested that schools should have safety metrics, just like schools have metrics in academic performance.
According to Duncan, federal agencies also will begin talks with teacher preparation programs and education schools about the issue of bullying prevention.
“We’re … going to begin surveying students and parents to get their suggestions for how best to combat bullying,” he added.
“The bottom line is, if students are bullied, there will never be equal education. Without an environment and culture of safety, without preventative measures, and without best practices, students will not only suffer emotional scarring, but may become disinterested in learning and drop out of school. We can’t continue to let this happen. It’s not just a ‘big city’ problem, it’s a national epidemic.”
Duncan said that in three to four years, he hopes ED will have the research on bullying and school safety necessary to help scale a handful of anti-bullying programs to states.
Department of Education