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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Program to get tough on bullies

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - This fall, the federal government will launch the first national campaign designed to help parents, teachers, and children tackle the problem of school-yard bullies, a major cause of school violence and teen suicide.

The National Bullying Prevention Campaign is scheduled to be unveiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in October.

The program is a multiyear effort combining public service announcements, online materials, and other activities to raise public awareness about the fact that a majority of children over the age of 9 see bullying as a major problem in their lives.

Bullying generally has been treated as an inescapable part of childhood, but researchers now contend that it can - and should - be prevented.

A first step, researchers say, is helping parents and teachers eradicate the myths surrounding bullying, which are encapsulated in such phrases as “boys will be boys'' and “bullying makes kids tough.''

“We need to move past these myths,'' said Susan Swearer, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and co-editor of a forthcoming book titled Bullying in American Schools.

Research indicates that one of four male bullies at age 8 had a criminal conviction by age 30, and a recent study by the U.S. Secret Service suggests that bullying was a factor in two-thirds of 37 school shootings the agency reviewed. In England, a recent spate of suicides has been blamed on bullying.

A recent case in Oaklyn, N.J., garnered national attention because it had the earmarks of a Columbine-style massacre averted, even though schools are out for the summer. The three teen suspects were arrested with a cache of weapons and ammunition after a carjacking attempt. Prosecutors said the alleged ringleader endured years of teasing and had targeted three public school students for death.

Ms. Swearer was one of several researchers who discussed the latest research on bullying at a recent federally sponsored conference in Washington. Among the findings:

  • Bullying affects millions of American children every school day and is most common among middle school students. Overall, nearly 30 percent of all children ages 11 to 15 have been a victim or a bully. No child is immune from bullying but victims generally are those who are “different'' in some way.

  • Bullying has a major impact on school performance. Bullies are more apt to smoke, drink alcohol, and perform poorly in school, while the fear of being bullied may keep as many as 160,000 students out of school on any given day.

  • Although bullying occurs throughout the school day, the moment when children leave school is the prime time for bullying to explode into violence.

  • Adults - teachers and parents - often don't realize that bullying is occurring. Some adults may not understand what behavior constitutes bullying, while others may underestimate the extent of bullying and the harm it can cause.

  • Bullying affects boys and girls. There has been an assumption that boys are involved with more direct or physical bullying and girls with indirect or emotional bullying. But researchers are finding that both girls and boys are involved in physical and emotional bullying.

  • In addition to bullies and their victims, researchers have pinpointed a third group, labeled “bully-victims.” These are bullies who also are victims of other bullies, including abusive parents. Ms. Swearer noted that the existence of such a group shows that the “whole dynamic of bullying is much more complicated than previously thought.''

    At last week's conference, researchers agreed that parents, teachers, and students must understand exactly what bullying is before they can work to eradicate it. Researchers now generally define bullying as repetitive physical and/or verbal violence perpetrated by one person against another person who is weaker in some way.

    Figuring out how to prevent or eliminate bullying is more complicated.

    “The overall problem with this field is that there are just not a lot of good outcome studies out there,'' Ms. Swearer said. “We know more about what doesn't work than what works.''

    But researchers agree that there are common themes among effective anti-bullying programs, such as the much-praised “Bullying Prevention Program'' created by Dan Olweus and Susan Limber.

    For example, it's clear that the most effective anti-bullying programs take a “whole school'' approach, involving administrators, teachers, students, parents, and even bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and playground aides.

    In these programs, there is an overall school culture that discourages bullying by setting clear rules of behavior, increasing the involvement and supervision of teachers and parents, and providing support for the victims of bullies. Research on such “whole school'' programs has shown that they reduce bullying by up to 50 percent.

    “There needs to be a message throughout the school that violence is not tolerated,'' added Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, a psychology professor at Rutgers University. “That definitely has more of an impact.

    A recent study, based on focus group sessions with seventh and eighth graders, shows that children generally are reluctant to intervene in a bully-victim situation, however.

    These “bystander'' children fear that, if they intervene, they will be the bully's next victim, said Terry Baugh, whose marketing consulting company conducted the focus groups for the study.

    “Another, quite compelling finding, is that kids feel that, even if they intervene, it won't make a difference,'' Ms. Baugh said.

    But there are ways of convincing children to help adults combat bullying, Ms. Baugh said.

    Students in the focus groups said they would be more likely to intervene if they were aware of the serious detrimental effects of bullying on victims, such as increased sexual promiscuity and the increased likelihood of suicide or violence against others.

    Students also indicated that they would be more likely to stand up to bullies if they understood that bullies act from weakness, not power, Ms. Baugh said.

    Peer acceptance of intervening also is an important factor. Ms. Baugh noted that students in the focus group particularly liked the phrase “Bullies aren't brave, but kids who stop them are.''



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