Bullying: The One Child-Safety Hazard We Don’t Address

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Last week’s bullying related death of Phoebe Prince in Massachusettes once again demonstrates the immediate and serious child health and safety problem of bullying. In the loud echo of these nationally-publicized incidents, it would seem that there would be a national call-to-action. If it were another problem killing our children at school, let’s say a child predator that made contact with 15 to 30 percent of our schoolchildren, we would take immediate action for the health and safety of our kids. Yet predictably, our response to bullying will more likely be to let these tragedies continue to pass without honest change. A recent statistic provided by the National Association of School Psychologists indicated that 25 percent of teachers do not see serious problems with bullying and respond in only 4 percent of instances (Cohn & Canter, “Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents“. Reports of bullying in our own schools commonly pulls that response; that it is just something we have to accept about our children’s lives, and that there’s nothing we can really do about the problem. Perhaps this comes from the ghosts of our own pasts that surround our experiences either being, avoiding, or being victims of bullying.

The fact is that the problem has been studied extensively by researchers over the years, and some very clear solutions and programs have been developed. The Olweus Model for intervention, developed by Dan Olweus, begins with a survey about the problems at a particular school location, followed by some very specific interventions to change the school culture, and direct strategies that help bullies and victims move past the problem when it has occured. The strategy takes time to set up and implement, but leads to effective change over a long period of time. Unfortunately, faced with time constraints and multiple demands, principals and administrators will often take only one component of the program, an anti-bullying assembly for example, and hope that it makes an impression. Bullying research shows that educational assemblies and classroom talks rarely change bullying behavior because of the fact that many bullying children feel justified in what they are doing, and do not make the connection between the discussion of bullying and their own aggressive words or actions during lunch and recess. Is that surprising? Not when we consider the statements children who engage in bullying often come up with such as “everyone calls people names at school,” and “he/she said things back to me too.”

Redefining bullying as a health and safety threat, and moving away from seeing it as a fact of childhood, might lead to more schools that take action toward change. Steps toward change can be as easy as:

  • Giving clear messages to students that indicate that it is a fear-free and bullying-free campus.
  • Surveying students anonymously about the problem of verbal and social bullying, as well as physical bullying.
  • Developing an intervention strategy that includes a clear way for both students and teachers to identify bullying incidents.
  • Identifying the most effective way of confronting children identifying as bullying including applying consequences for bullying behaviors.

Although these are only a few, brief suggestions, other online resources are available on the Olweus Model and other intervention approaches. For kids, a positive, child friendly online resource has been developed by the U.S. Health Resources and Services office at http://www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/kids/.