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Professional Opinion

Engaging Students to Prevent Bullying

Moving beyond ‘adult-centric’ emphases.

At the recent annual conference of the International Bullying Prevention Association, I co-facilitated a session with a panel of students who are leaders in preventing bullying in their school. I asked the 600 professionals in the room how many also rely on student leadership to prevent bullying, and barely 30 raised their hands. The students’ insightful and passionate presentation on confronting these real-world problems became the “buzz” of the conference.

Beyond Adult-Centric Policies

Unwanted and aggressive behavior among school-aged students—verbal, relational, or physical—and the growth of mobile technology and social media have pushed bullying and cyber-bullying to epidemic proportions. However, it is time to move beyond “adult-centric” emphases to prevent bullying, as programs focus on adult actions: Adults make policies. Adults post rules against bullying. Adults teach students not to bully. Students are told to tell adults if they are bullied. And adults punish bullies. While K12 district administrators clearly have responsibility for what happens in their schools, such approaches are insufficient, especially as students use digital and social media technologies that are not under school control.

Historically, the “just say no’” approach to drug abuse was never effective, so there is no reason to believe that posters saying, “We will not bully others” will be effective either. In fact, compelling research reveals that most students think that intervention by the school staff makes situations worse (see Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L. & O’Brennan, L.M. Bullying and Peer Victimization at School: Perceptual Differences Between Students and School Staff. School Psychology Review, Volume 36, No. 3, pp. 361-382, 2007). With today’s technologies, even suspension does not limit social interactions with peers, and only interferes with student success. Therefore, the so-called zero tolerance policy—which calls for suspending bullies—translates to zero intelligence.

Empowering Student Leadership

Bullying is socially motivated. These hurtful interactions are played out for the benefit of an audience, to attract attention and gain social power, so stopping the harm requires influencing the audience. When students understand that the majority of their peers disapprove of bullying, bullying will decrease.

There are growing numbers of examples for using students to prevent bullying in K12 districts across the country, such as the following that are each included in the resources below:

Marietta, Ga. Patti Agatston, with the Prevention/Intervention Center of the Cobb County School District, works with middle and high school students to lead bullying prevention program events, and develop the voice of young people to promote pro-social behavior.  “Teens are much more likely to listen to other teens on this issue than to adults,” Agatston says.

Oceanside, N.Y. Karen Siris, principal of the Boardman Elementary School on Long Island and co-author of Stand Up!, works with sixth graders, teaching them to be “Caring Majority Ambassadors.” They learn about the dangers of bullying and harassment and are given techniques to stand up for a child who may feel excluded or harassed, and pass what they learn to younger children in the school. “Learning about kindness and caring from peers has a powerful impact in our school community,” she says.

Albuquerque, N.M. When Torin Hovander was a senior at Sandia High School in the Albuquerque Public Schools, he formed an anti-bullying campaign that encouraged students to report bullying and to intervene. The club became highly popular at Sandia and spread to other schools. Torin explains that he saw a play where a character says, “indifference is the essence of inhumanity,” and that motivated his efforts.

Eugene, Ore. José Da Silva, principal of the Kelly Middle School, decided his staff needed to learn more about what was happening from students, and asked four students to spend 15 minutes talking about bullying issues at a staff meeting. The 15 minutes soon became an hour, as the teachers kept asking questions. “To create a space for students to have a voice and be heard is invaluable,” Da Silva says. Teacher Colleen Young added, “It is beautiful to see students owning their identities with pride and supporting each other to tell their stories,” and student Morgan Miller says, “It was cool that we got to be the teacher.”  

Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Gary McDaniel, clinical school social worker at Morgan County Schools in West Virginia, worked with me on a bullying prevention program that surveys students on how they treat each other and uses student leaders to address concerns. “Students are very interested in what they and their peers think about themselves, and are responsive to what student leaders have to say,” McDaniel says. “Nothing any expert says can compete with that.”

The bottom line is that the experts who know most about the hurtful student interactions and have the capability to reduce incidents are already in your district. We need to engage, empower and support those potential student leaders.

Cobb County (Ga.) School District Prevention Intervention Center

Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

International Bullying Prevention Association

Kelly Middle School. Eugene (Ore.) School District 4J

Morgan County (W.Va.) Schools

Oceanside (N.Y.) School District

The Power of Youth Bloggers —Torin Hovander

Nancy Willard, J.D., is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age (, and author of the bullying prevention program Be a Friend ~ Lend a Hand.

Editor’s note: District Administration offers a free archived on-demand web seminar titled “5 Effective Steps to Solving the Bullying Epidemic—and the Tools to Get You There” (