Key Points Made by the Individual Speakers
- Additional attention to the definition of bullying and policies related to the reporting of bullying could improve preventive efforts. (Cafasso, Dockrey, Dolan, Donlin, Myers)
- Improving school climate and social norms can be powerful ways to prevent bullying. (Cantave, Farkas, Myers, Shaw)
- Parents, teachers, and legislators were stakeholders who were missing from the workshop presentations and discussions. (Dockrey, Donlin)
- Other issues that deserve attention include sibling aggression, self-esteem and self-worth, and recognizing teachers and adults as perpetrators of bullying. (Cafasso, Cantave, Dockrey, Farkas)
One of the final sessions of the workshop included a panel of three school personnel and a second panel of five students who offered their reflections on the workshop presentations and discussions, as well as their thoughts on possible future work on bullying prevention. The panelists were selected to provide a range of viewpoints.
Among the school personnel, the panelists included a high school principal, a coordinator of behavioral supports and interventions for a large
public school system, and a program supervisor for a state superintendent’s office:
- Virginia Dolan, the coordinator of behavioral supports and interventions for Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, which is a large system of approximately 120 schools and 80,000 students;
- Mike Donlin, the program supervisor for the School Safety Center of the Office of the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who works with superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, and students from 295 school districts and roughly 2,300 individual schools in the state; and
- William Myers, the principal at South River High School, which is the largest high school in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, with about 2,250 students.
Among the student panelists, speakers included current high school students and recent high school graduates from both public and private schools in rural and urban settings:
- Alexa Cafasso, a high school senior at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut, who instituted a Cyber-Ally Program at her private, all-girls high school to teach leaders how to transition from silent bystanders to local allies;
- Glenn Cantave, a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, who was trained as a peer leader in high school to help facilitate anti-bullying activities in local middle schools;
- Whitney Dockrey, a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, who became passionate about bullying prevention when it started to affect people in her school and in her community and was not being addressed;
- Asher Farkas, a sophomore at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who was bullied in middle school and transferred to a high school where the environment was more accepting; and
- Rebecca Shaw, a senior at the Horace Mann High School in New York City, who founded an organization called the Anti-Bullying Leadership Network to connect students who care about bullying prevention to researchers who study the issue.
Both panels brought a breadth of experiences and a range of perspectives on bullying prevention that complemented the presentations of research and enriched the overall workshop discussion. Following is a summary of their remarks.
Several of the panelists, including school personnel and students, commented on the need for continued attention to the definition of bullying. Despite the existence of the recently developed uniform definition of bullying (see Chapter 2), definitions and the interpretation of definitions still vary from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Furthermore, as Cornell noted, the definitions of bullying used in evidence-based programs may not line up with the definitions of bullying used by schools. Schools would be eager to consider “a clearly publicized, central definition of bullying,” said Myers. A common definition could create a starting line for jurisdictions across the country. It also would support accountability, he said, because “what gets checked gets done.”
Cafasso pointed out that she goes to a private school, which may interpret and handle bullying in a very different manner than would a public school. A universal definition would make it easier to educate younger children about what bullying is and how to stop it. In addition, a definition that distinguishes cyberbullying from online harassment would be useful, she said.
Dockrey added that youth need information about bullying so they can recognize it for what it is. She explained that bullying may be easy to recognize when a jock is doing it to a nerd, but it can be harder to identify when two girls of the same social class are bullying each other. “That is called ‘drama,’ but in reality that can become bullying too,” she said.
Dolan pointed to a disconnect between parents’ understanding and definition of bullying and what school personnel understand to be bullying. Students tend to say that bullying is much more common than is usually reported, she said, which is partly a matter of definitions.
Finally, Donlin talked about the distinctions among harassment, intimidation, and bullying. The three are similar but not the same, he said. They have different impacts and raise different legal implications. To meet state and federal requirements, schools are forced to decide whether a given incident was bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, racial harassment, or something else. Clear understandings are needed to distinguish among different kinds of aggressive acts, he observed.
Reporting of Bullying
Issues related to reporting bullying were raised by the school personnel panelists. For example, Washington state, which has 295 school districts and about 2,300 individual school buildings, requires a mandated policy on bullying prevention and procedures on prevention and intervention. But how that policy is implemented may vary from school to school, said
Donlin. Every school district writes its own policies and procedures, with guidance provided by the school board association. One exception to this is a state requirement to adopt the state model policy and procedures on harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Although information is annually gathered on programs and trainings provided, there is no process for collecting detailed information on bullying events, anti-bullying program implementation, or investigations of reports of bullying, he said. Although Washington state has a definition, a code of conduct, and a set of responses, an act of bullying can be interpreted as an aggressive fight or disrespect.
Dolan also raised a question about the accuracy of the statistics on bullying. Are elements of bullying masked by other aggressive behaviors? When a school or district has an increased number of bullying incidents, communities can become roused. How can bullying be made a priority for everyone, she asked. In her school system, “soft offenses” such as defiance and disrespect can lead to harder offenses such as fights and attacks. Bullying may be subsumed in different parts of this spectrum of aggressive behaviors, she said.
As Dolan noted, Maryland has a policy regarding reporting of incidents of bullying. However, the system has found inconsistencies between reported incidents and those that have resulted in some sort of disciplinary sanction. It also has found disconnects between what youth are reporting and what adults are reporting, how bullying is perceived and identified, and what is done about it.
Reporting of bullying incidents can create sanctions against schools, noted Dolan, which creates an incentive not to report occurrences. Schools that implement reporting requirements most aggressively can end up with a black eye. In addition, Myers raised the issue of inhibitions for the sharing of information because of legal guidelines. However, he added that his school is very transparent. “We share the data that we collect. It is not a mystery what is happening in our building. That is a model that should flow throughout the county. As we are made more aware of where the challenges are, we can address them,” he said.
Several of the student and school personnel panelists focused their remarks on the importance of school climate on bullying prevention. From the student perspective, Farkas said that policies directed toward bullying typically try to put out the fire, but what if steps were taken so that the fires did not get started in the first place? If children could be taught to empathize with others before they even begin elementary school, schools would have far more students who have no need to bully. Research on this topic could point the way to effective programs, he said.
In addition, the environment of schools needs to change, Farkas observed. There is no reason why the social structure of a school needs to resemble a pyramid, with just a few students on top. As noted at the beginning of this workshop summary, Farkas went to both kinds of schools, and the high school he went to was not structured like a pyramid. “There were no popular kids. There were no nerds.” If empathy were taught in the classroom by teachers and reinforced by other students, schools would be a better place. “Building from the ground up instead of trying to fix the problems from the surface is a much more effective way of going about things,” he said.
Cantave said that teachers should be encouraged to consider why someone is being targeted. If teachers become aware of the vulnerabilities that are being exploited, then they may be able to do something to stop bullying. In addition, the observation that having even one friend reduces the chance of being bullied was “really poignant,” said Cantave. Integrating that observation into curricula might help targets become less introverted. If the targets of bullying could be humanized, then other people might step up to defend them when they are being bullied. Cantave also noted that many targets of bullying have low self-esteem, which can have long-term impacts on their lives. Studying these effects could motivate change.
Shaw emphasized the importance of evaluating a school’s climate and changing social norms. Empowering a bystander to stand up against bullying can make a big difference, even though it requires social capital. However, the entire system cannot depend on an awkward sixth grader standing up to the cool kid in school. It “is amazing when it happens,” she said, “but we cannot build a society on that.”
If the norm is to be supportive and not to engage in bullying behavior, then bullying will decrease, said Shaw. In that respect, the examples set by teachers and students leaders are critical. “We must be thinking about the kind of society we are creating.” This role modeling cannot come just from teachers and administrators. It needs to be a grassroots movement that resonates with students to become part of the students’ norms, she said.
The effect of a heterogeneous social population was interesting, said Shaw, in that it provided a target of bullying with a way of processing an aggressor’s actions. More broadly, adjusting the cognitive framework of students might enable many more students to realize why they are being bullied and not blame themselves. “If we can give all students the tools to process it in that way, we can, hopefully, reduce the risks of depression down the line and even cutting down on suicides.”
Shaw also pointed to the transition point in late middle school and high school where many anti-bullying programs cease to be effective and can actually be counterproductive. “That makes a lot of sense to me, and it is something that is quite worrisome. It really speaks to changing normative
behavior.” Teenagers resist being told what to think, she noted. Unless activities like poster campaigns and assemblies are paired with efforts to change the climate, “it ends up coming across as more disingenuous.” Given the tools and the facts, students can draw their own conclusions, especially when they are led by adults who know and care about an issue, said Shaw.
From the school perspective, Myers emphasized that bullying cannot and should not be siloed. “It cannot be taken out of context of the total school culture.” Creating social norms for peer groups within the schoolhouse is extremely important, he said. Donlin agreed. He said that the school climate is a fundamental consideration. “When I am doing my work in bullying prevention with districts or schools or families or parents, one of the first things I tell people is that bullying is a community event and it takes a community to deal with it.” Preventive activities can help create that climate and need to be done upfront, with awareness as the first step in prevention, he said.
School personnel often feel what Myers called “implementation anxiety” over getting a program accepted and then implemented with fidelity at the school level. School personnel face many barriers in implementing programs, as pointed out by several presenters, including the number of mandated “must-dos” that have to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, the county does not have a systemic program for all schools to follow, Myers said, so each school individually considers what would work best.
A difficult question that school personnel face is what to do after a bullying incident, Myers observed. What can be done for a bullied child, and what should be done to a child exhibiting bullying behaviors? How can prevention be maintained going forward? Not having such interventions can have long-lasting and costly impacts, he said.
Dolan also noted that schools can implement programs without fidelity and then wonder why they do not work. Planning is required to implement a program successfully, she said. In particular, the climate of a school is a strong determinant of what can and cannot be done. Schools need to be more accountable for the implementation of programs, Dolan continued. One positive aspect of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a bullying prevention program used in the Anne Arundel school system, is that it does hold schools accountable. Schools are given a score around implementation, and the scores have been tied to incentives for the school, she noted.
Dealing with bullying also requires training, Donlin said, even though no separate, dedicated funding is available in his state to provide training.
In addition, training tends to focus on policies and procedures rather than on prevention or best practices. But educators need help developing the skills to create safe and secure learning environments for all students in all settings, he noted.
Legislators need to hear what works, how programs can be implemented, and how they can be taken to scale, observed Donlin. They also need to know that implementing such programs at scale requires time, funding, people, and other resources.
The Biological Evidence
The biological evidence was mesmerizing, Myers observed. Research shows that long-term stress can have dramatic effects on the adolescent brain, but recovery is also possible if the right interventions are available, he noted. The biological findings help avoid a tendency to blame the victim, Dolan added.
The students, like the school personnel, were impressed by the potential of the biological evidence on bullying to influence opinions. Cantave pointed out, for example, that the biological observations could keep students from being marginalized, because others might realize that they have undergone traumatic experiences, as reflected by changes in their brain. More research on the long-term damages of bullying could greatly increase the potential impact of these observations, Dockrey added.
Technology and Other Resources
In a highly technological culture, a variety of technologies can influence the attitudes and knowledge of students. For example, Cafasso noted that public service notices can be a powerful way of influencing school climates. The MTV commercials that point to the thin line between words and wounds are an example of messages that can make “a huge difference,” she said.
Students of different ages use different social media and technologies, Dockrey noted, which requires that anti-bullying messages travel through different outlets. Messages also need to be paired with what teens want and need to hear, she noted.
Technologies offer a possible way of encouraging and supporting students to make friends, said Dockrey. “Even if they do not have a friend at their school, they are at least going to be able to know that they have a friend in that organization one county over and they can text and talk and Facebook with that person all they want.”
To reduce cyberbullying, some schools encourage their teachers and administrators to be online, Farkas noted. Having a teacher to whom a
student can reach out for help can be very valuable during stressful periods, he said.
The http://www.stopbullying.gov website has been a “tremendous resource” to Shaw in her capacity as the president of the Anti-Bullying Leadership Network. She often receives e-mails and Facebook messages from parents or students asking how they can respond to bullying. The website is respectful to students, has pages directed toward students of different ages, provides important facts, and presents the options for different locations, Shaw said.
Until 10 or 15 years ago, bullying did not get much attention, she continued. Its increased visibility means that more ideas and materials are available, and it can be hard to sort through those materials. The push toward data-driven methods and programs that have been rigorously tested helps greatly in that regard, and more evidence-based programs are needed. “It really does seem like we are on the precipice of making a big difference,” Shaw said.
Myers agreed with the student panelists that technology is a major influence on the lives of children and adolescents. But schools still do not have technology-enabled programs available to them that could deliver the message of bullying to parents in the community. “That would be invaluable to have,” he said. Another valuable resource would be a program beginning at the elementary level to teach students about the appropriate use of technology and about some of the pitfalls that can occur.
Myers also asked whether parents can be provided with concrete guidelines for help with a bullied child. A program or even a pamphlet about what they can do in such a situation would be very helpful, he said.
School personnel and student panelists were asked to reflect on stakeholders and issues that they felt were missing from the workshop presentations and discussions. Donlin identified legislators as a stakeholder group not represented at the workshop. In his job, he deals often with legislators, whether at a local level or a state level. “We have a very good state law and good policy,” he said, “but the challenge is to make sure that everything is practical and practicable.”
Another group missing from the workshop was school personnel involved in special education and 504 plans under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, he noted. The students who are covered by those programs also need to be protected, Donlin said.
Dockrey said that one group missing from the conversation at the workshop was parents. Parents need to be equipped to respond well when their children come to them with bullying problems, she said. Some parents
look for their own identity and status in the accomplishments of their children. They may not want to hear that their children are having problems with bullying, because it implies that they have done something wrong. Parents can build their children’s self-esteem by getting them involved in organizations and supporting their activities. Dockrey suggested that parents can help their children establish relationships, especially because parents are the first people with whom children experience love. “If they don’t get these skills at home, then they are not going to be able to take them into schools to make that one friend or the relationships that they need,” Dockrey said.
Finally, the student and school personnel panelists were asked to consider issues that were not raised during the workshop presentations and that were missing from the overall discussion. This section summarizes several topics that were raised.
Teachers and Adults as Bullies
Several of the student respondents pointed out that, as Farkas said, “teachers can be bullies, too.” The definition of bullying should not limit itself just to youth, Farkas continued. In his high school, students did not bully each other, but teachers did bully students. “We had chemistry teachers calling their kids ‘stupid.’ We had English teachers calling out racial slurs, sexual orientation slurs.…That is straight-up bullying.” When Farkas complained to administrators about a particular teacher, the teacher was not disciplined and Farkas was sent to another classroom. “I was glad to no longer be in the classroom. But the way that looked to the rest of the school population is that I was being punished for being bullied.”
Teachers have their own biases, and they can act as models for bullying among students. “If teachers are giving the impression that this kind of behavior is okay, the kids are going to think this kind of behavior is okay.” Teachers need the same kind of bullying prevention training that students receive, Farkas said.
Dockrey observed that bullying may take the form of a teacher who only acknowledges the jocks and popular students at school. What teachers think about students is going to shape their self-identity, she added. “We cannot be having teachers and coaches being okay with bullying kids in addition to the students who are doing so.” The research on changes in the brain can help them recognize the damage they are doing to students. When teachers or administrators label a student a “drama queen,” that is just an easy way not to address a problem, Dockrey said. Cafasso also
mentioned the importance of adults bullying youth. Research on teachers, coaches, family members, or other adults involved in bullying youth could help explore this largely overlooked behavior, she said.
Sibling aggression can be a factor in bullying, Dockrey noted, because how a child feels at home is how he or she is going to act in the wider world. If children are loved and confident at home, then they will feel confident and loved at school. Dockrey has three younger sisters, and if something bad happens to one of them at school, “they are going to come back to three other best friends. I think if we can instill that into families, that could significantly help them as they are going out into schools and having to deal with these issues.”
Self-Esteem and Self-Worth
Finally, an issue largely overlooked by the workshop, according to Cantave, was the importance of self-esteem and confidence on the part of victims. As adolescents spend more time with computers than with family or friends, sources of reinforcement, such as “likes” on Facebook, can become extremely important in the social life of teens. “But those who are targeted, those who are marginalized, they are not getting those Facebook likes.…Where are you getting that validation? Where are you getting that self-worth? That is a really big issue.” A self-worth campaign could change the environment, he suggested. “Quirks seen as oddities to some could be passions for others. Somehow, somewhere, we need to eliminate the importance of external validation and have people really recognize their self-worth,” Cantave said.