Duncan: School bullying now a top federal priority

Duncan says school staff need to set the example. Copyright: Doktory
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.

Meris Stansbury

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