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An alternative approach to preventing bullying

‘Student-leadership’ model may be more effective
Author Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. (Image by Bruce Searl)
Author Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. (Image by Bruce Searl)

In a 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more. This rate has not significantly declined since 2005. Of this number, close to 540,000 students say this happens “almost daily.”

Furthermore, over 700,000 students reported they were “fearful of attack or harm” at school “sometimes” or “most of the time.”

It’s clear: What schools are doing to stop bullying isn’t working. And the risks of liability or an agency enforcement action are increasing.

Making it worse?

Most bullying statutes rely on students reporting harassment and adults stepping in to resolve the problem. But the majority of students do not tell an adult if someone is hurtful to them at school. This is likely because the majority of students think school staff make things worse when they intervene. Unfortunately, the research backs up students’ perceptions.

Schools generally comply with state statutes and follow common bullying prevention guidelines. The problem is that the 20th century “adult-control” approach to prevention—which also includes increased supervision and punishing bullies—will never be effective. Students will not be responsive to adult-dictated rules not to bully others.

Most bullying is motivated by a desire to achieve social dominance and occurs outside of adult view. Asking students to “tell an adult” if they are bullied won’t be effective if they believe that doing so could cause serious damage to their reputation and could also lead to retaliation.

And in cases of cyberbullying, the adult-control approach is not effective because schools don’t make the rules for sites and apps, and school staff are not present in digital environments.

The expectation that schools can effectively reduce bullying may be unfair in a similar way to the belief that schools can single-handedly overcome poverty. So how can schools overcome human nature that supports aggressive behavior to achieve social dominance—as well as the hurtful social-cultural attitudes that are so prevalent?

A new model

Schools have an “ace up their sleeves”—the students. The overwhelming majority of young people do not engage in bullying or other forms of hurtful behavior and do not like to see their peers exhibit such behavior. This younger generation, which is far more accepting of human differences than any earlier generation, wants to do more to help.

Shifting from an “adult-control” approach to a “student-leadership” model can lead to greater effectiveness. By engaging students in leadership roles and increasing their skills and understandings, the climate of support for bullying will decline, conflicts will be more readily resolved and students will be more likely to intervene positively.

It’s also vitally important that schools shift from punishment to restorative interventions. This includes a multi-tier system of support for higher-risk students who are being bullied, as well as a restorative approach to holding “bullies” accountable. It is imperative to evaluate the effectiveness of every intervention.

Districts and schools also can help address bullying and harassment by improving school climate. The social-emotional-cultural competencies and well-being of students should be a priority, with dedicated staffing and broad-based coordinating committees. And regular evaluation of these issues will be necessary. As districts make the shift into the Common Core, now is the time to ensure that schools are effectively addressing “the whole child.”

Clearly, we must prepare students with the academic insights and skills necessary for success in work and life in the 21st century. But we also must ensure that students gain responsible social relationship skills. These social competencies are equally important for success in work and life.

Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, and author of Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere): Legal Ramifications & Positive Strategies to Address Bullying & Harassment