Bullying has captured the news headlines and the attention of legislators, educators and special interest advocates over the past three years at a greater rate. High-profile teen suicides have raised questions about the role bullying may have played in student deaths.
States have enacted new anti-bullying laws and parents are turning more often to principals to resolve bullying incidents occurring in school and in cyberspace.
School administrators and safety officials agree that bullying is a serious issue worthy of reasonable attention, awareness and action. Anti-bullying strategies should be one component of a comprehensive and balanced approach to school safety. Dealing with lower-level aggression and behaviors constituting bullying early on can prevent bigger safety problems down the road.
But in a climate driven by emotion, heightened media coverage and the politicization of bullying, how can school leaders genuinely address bullying without overreacting and wasting limited dollars and time?
Recognize the Politics
School leaders must recognize the politics behind the recent drive for new state and federal anti-bullying laws. Special interest groups, gay rights and civil rights advocates in particular, have been aggressively lobbying for new bullying laws that enumerate the phrases “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to create a new protected class for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Meanwhile, Christian Conservative groups and a number of legislators have opposed such laws as violations of their religious beliefs and rights.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a 2010 “Dear Colleagues” letter to school administrators advising them of the interpretation of federal civil rights education laws to apply to harassment and bullying. The federal Education and Justice Departments have initiated various investigations and litigation against school districts. Although the National School Boards Association challenged the Education Department’s interpretation of the federal law as being questionable and overly expansive, the Obama Administration has held firm in its position.
Efforts are also under way to enact a federal law on anti-bullying and anti-discrimination of LGBT students. These bills, which are Democrat-driven, are unlikely to be passed into law given the current political composition of Congress, where the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House of Representatives. But political pressures continue behind the scenes to get language enacted into the forthcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
At the state level, many legislators have championed anti-bullying laws and leveraged their efforts for heightened publicity and political advantages. Only a handful of states do not have some type of bullying law on the books, according to the Education Commission of the States. While the language and requirements of state laws vary, some state laws, such as New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law, have been characterized by school administrator groups and school safety professionals as being highly prescriptive and burdensome.
School administrators need to be aware of these political dynamics, as they are increasingly resulting in new laws and outside requirements that are likely to create new data collection and reporting, professional development and other typically unfunded mandates. They must follow those laws and regulations which are enacted, and encourage their professional associations to advocate for changes or against laws that are inappropriate. Anecdotal information also suggests an increasing number of lawsuits challenging how school administrators and their staff manage bullying incidents, so these laws do have serious implications.
Understand Media, Emotions
The media has been quick to jump on stories related to bullying. Cyber-bullying, student assaults and teen suicides continue to make headlines in all forms of media. Social networks continue to buzz every day with stories, tweets, blogs and other communications on bullying incidents and advocacy. The heightened media and political attention have also heightened parental attention to bullying.
Principals report a growing number of incidents where frustrated parents are bringing conflicts originating on Facebook and by texting outside of the school for principals to resolve. The lack of parental familiarity with social networking dynamics and their understandably natural tendency to become emotional when their children are under attack have pushed bullying complaints to a new level for many administrators.
School leaders have an obligation to address legitimate bullying concerns. They must also recognize and address the emotional reactions of parents. Trying to explain facts and context is often difficult, if not impossible, when emotions are running high.
As legislative and parental pressures continue to mount, principals and superintendents struggle with how to address legitimate bullying concerns without overreacting. Limited funding and time pressures on one hand counter parental and media pressures on the other hand. A number of schools have caved into the pressures by creating new anti-bullying programs, buying T-shirts and buttons, holding special assemblies with presenters and bringing in consultants to create visible evidence of their response to bullying concerns.
But schools do not need new laws, unfunded mandates or an array of programs to meaningfully address bullying. Much of what they need is either already in place or readily available if they choose to use it. School leaders need to define their approach as a combination of existing best practices to address bullying and safe schools:
- Supervision and security
- School discipline and classroom management
- Criminal and civil law (when appropriate)
- School climate strategies
- Mental health support for students
- Effective communications plans
Many of these practices are already in place in schools across the country, and except for the mental health component, most are readily available to school administrators. Many administrators are addressing bullying, but often view these strategies individually rather than collectively as a broader, coordinated model for defining their school’s approach to an anti-bullying “program.”
Supervision and Security
Experienced principals and assistant principals know that bullying and other misconduct often occur in areas where there is less adult supervision and greater mobility of students. These include restrooms, hallways, stairwells, locker rooms, playgrounds, cafeterias and bus drop-off and pick-up areas. Bullying and other inappropriate behaviors can be reduced by enhancing supervision in these locations. Administrators should create formal, written supervision plans with adults assigned by name to areas at specific times and locations.
School Resource Officers and security personnel also serve a preventative role. All adults should be trained on best practices and common gaps in supervision of students.
Structure and Discipline
Students want a climate characterized by order, structure and discipline. They typically do not directly ask for it, as most educators and parents know. But they do want it. Discipline must be applied in a firm, fair and consistent manner. Discipline does not have to be abusive or prisonlike in nature. It does need to be firm and consistent though, and educators do a disservice to children if they fail to provide such a climate.
Bullying occurs where order and structure is lacking. Create an orderly and structured environment in the classroom and common areas, and you will reduce bullying throughout the school.
Criminal and Civil Law
Behaviors that would be considered bullying may include acts such as assaults, threats, menacing, sexual assaults, intimidation, extortion and disrupting the school environment. Most school discipline policies and student conduct codes already address these behaviors. Administrators can use their disciplinary process to address such misconduct.
But some incidents being labeled as “bullying” also constitute a crime. And some of these crimes are felonies, not just minor misdemeanors. When students are sexually assaulted or beaten to the point of bleeding, having broken limbs and being knocked unconscious, the offenses are crimes and should not be diminished to a more generic characterization of “bullying.” School administrators can and should engage the police and criminal justice system when serious crimes occur.
And parents may, in some cases, need to turn to civil litigation to pursue remedies against the offenders—and in some cases, those schools and their leaders—that show a deliberate indifference to obvious safety problems.
School Climate Strategies
Defining school climate is difficult, but most schools already employ climate strategies that address bullying. These involve dealing with issues including respect, trust, diversity, belonging and connectedness to the school and peaceful resolution of conflicts. School climate strategies contribute to the prevention of bullying and are part of many schools’ strategies for safety.
Mental Health Support
One of the most overlooked issues is the undiagnosed, under-treated and/or untreated mental health needs of students. Dave Cullen and Peter Langman independently authored the books Columbine and Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, respectively, with both authors concluding that the poor mental health conditions of the school shooters they studied, not bullying from others, caused these perpetrators to shoot. School alone cannot assume the full responsibility for youths’ mental health needs. But schools can and do play a role. School psychologists, counselors and social workers can and should play a major role by assessing student mental health needs and coordinating professional intervention services.
Effective Communication Plans
School administrators typically acknowledge having these strategies in place. But most fail to view them collectively as their school’s anti-bullying program approach. And most administrators who are employing these strategies under-communicate their efforts to parents and their school community. School leaders should develop a formal plan for communicating their anti-bullying programs to students, staff and parents. Often school administrators are doing the right thing. They are just not letting their stakeholders know they are doing it until a crisis occurs and, at that point, they are fighting an uphill battle to convince their community they already have adequate anti-bullying efforts in place.
Most school administrators do not need to create new programs or buy vendor-driven products. They do, however, need to assess their current practices and coordinate strategies into a comprehensive and well-communicated anti-bullying program.
Kenneth S. Trump is president of the National School Safety and Security Services (www.schoolsecurity.org), and author of the book “Proactive School Security and Emergency Preparedness,” (Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, April 2011).