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Professional Opinion

What are you doing to prevent bullying?

One-time, flashy anti-bullying assemblies don’t go far enough to address the problem
Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of books on bullying.
Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of books on bullying.

This is the disturbing opening from a Los Angeles Times article published a year ago:

“Two students from separate schools committed suicide within days of each other this month—which is National Bullying Prevention Month—and both boys apparently had been bullied. Now, parents are asking questions not just about bullying but also about anti-bullying videos, which both schools aired shortly before the incidents.”

In one of these situations, the student walked out of the video screening expressing suicidal thoughts to another student. The following morning, he took his life. His father has filed a wrongful death suit in federal court against the school district and the producers of the anti-bullying video.

These incidents should prompt all district leaders to ask: “Are the bullying prevention activities my district has planned for National Bullying Prevention Month in October grounded in research on effective bullying prevention?”

If you are planning to show anti-bullying videos or to feature guest presenters that convey the message, “Don’t bully, you could cause someone to commit suicide,” you should think twice. This message is not only ineffective, but is potentially highly dangerous.

Ongoing efforts

The increased attention being paid to bullying has generated a plethora of videos and presentations marketed to schools. But to reduce and limit the harmful effects of bullying will require more. It must be a comprehensive, ongoing effort that includes:

  • Designated staff.
  • Coordinating committees to keep everyone informed.
  • A focus on positive school climate and all students’ social and emotional needs and competencies.
  • Annual assessment.
  • Student leadership.
  • Effective restorative interventions.

There is no research evidence that one-time, flashy assemblies in October will have any positive impact. However, a far more serious concern is the “bullying causes suicide” message that has become so prevalent.

There is an association between bullying and suicide. A document published by the Centers for Disease Control titled “The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools” should be required reading for every school leader, counselor, psychologist and nurse.

What the data shows is:

  • Youth who report frequently bullying others and youth who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.
  • Youth who report both bullying others and being bullied have the highest risk for suicide-related behavior of any groups that report involvement in bullying.

The CDC also warns that “framing the discussion of the issue as bullying being a single, direct cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful.” It could:

  1. Perpetuate the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied, which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create copycat behavior among youth.
  2. Encourage sensationalized reporting and contradicts the “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide," potentially encouraging copycat behavior that could lead to “suicide contagion.”
  3. Focus the response on blame and punishment, which prevents supporting and treating those who are bullied as well as those who bully others.
  4. Take attention away from other important risk factors for suicidal behavior that need to be addressed (such as substance abuse, mental illnesses, problems coping with disease/disability, and family dysfunction.)

The two incidents mentioned at the beginning of this article appear to be copycat behavior influenced by the video presentations, according to authorities. This very action should sound alarm-bell warnings for every school leader—and should result in the elimination of these kinds of programs from U.S. schools.

Action steps

What can you do in October that will allow your school to focus on the issues around bullying? As discussed in my June article in District Administration, bullying behavior is motivated by peer responses, generally occurs outside of areas of adult supervision, and is most often not reported to the school.

Student leadership in reducing bullying behavior and increasing positive peer intervention is critically important. It is necessary to demonstrate the positive norm that the majority of students do not admire those who engage in bullying. Students leaders also can transmit effective insight and skills, such as how to:

  • Reach out to be kind to someone who is a target.
  • Safely and effectively tell someone to stop their hurtful behavior.
  • Report serious situations.
  • Stop and make things right if you have been hurtful.
  • Gain self-confidence and resilience if you are being targeted.

The “experts” in your school community who can do the best job of transmitting these lessons are your older students. Begin now to work with a team of students—which includes those who are more typically targeted—to create positive educational activities in October that can become an important component of your more comprehensive approach.

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 and Be a Friend—Lend a Hand: How Young People Can Reduce Bullying, Disrespect & “Drama.”

District Administration welcomes the insights and opinions of educators and administrators on all topics. If you would like to contribute a guest column, please contact Tim Goral at