Corrected: In an earlier version of this story, the name of the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network was misspelled. Her name is Eliza Byard.
Practitioners and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels are focusing fresh attention on eliminating the scourge of bullying from the schools, inspired both by personal observations and by recent incidents that have received national attention.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval A. Patrick last week signed a new law that covers bullying in both verbal and electronic forms and requires schools—public and private—to develop and teach a preventive curriculum. It also requires school employees to report incidences of bullying and principals to investigate them.
Its passage means that 42 states now have laws against bullying, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the federal Department of Health and Human Services that leads the national “Stop Bullying Now!” campaign.
Momentum for a tough, anti-bullying law in Massachusetts grew after the death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who committed suicide in January in the wake of alleged bullying from classmates at the South Hadley, Mass., high school she had entered just last fall. Several classmates have been arrested on charges including stalking and harassment in connection with Ms. Prince’s death, and the school district has moved to draft an anti-bullying policy.
The issue of bullying received additional attention last month when more than 7,500 middle and high schools participated in a Day of Silence sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, a New York City-based organization. That event is designed to bring attention to bullying of students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The key is making sure the attention we see right now is turned to effective action across the country,” said Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, which has pushed hard for anti-bullying policies and provides training for districts and students in combating bullying.
Kevin Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools—and GSLEN’s founder and former executive director—said schools need to address bullying with the same gravity they do other problems that disrupt learning for students.
“We need to begin to measure the environment in schools with the same level of rigor that we measure reading and math scores,” he said in a recent interview. “We need to communicate from the first moment students come to school on the first day of the school year that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated. We don’t tell kids to do a math problem once. We repeat the message. We have to do that around this.”
The Obama administration has created a multidepartment team to deal with harassment and bullying, drawing on the departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services in an attempt to have a clear look at efforts under way and fill in any gaps, Mr. Jennings said.
Next month, the Education Department will unveil the Safe and Supportive Schools grants, a $30 million competition to provide funding for states to use in tackling issues such as bullying and harassment. The administration has asked for an increase in funding for the grants to $165 million in the budget request for fiscal 2011 it sent to Congress.
Grantees will be required to craft a school climate survey that looks at the number of incidents recorded and includes responses from teachers, students, and parents sharing their perceptions of school safety.
The result, Mr. Jennings said, will be a school safety score made public so parents and students will know how safe a school is considered to be, “based on the experiences of the people in the building.” The states will pilot programs using the data to help target the schools most in need.
The Massachusetts legislature’s action on the anti-bullying legislation was in part inspired by the death in April 2009 of Carl Walker-Hoover, a middle schooler who committed suicide after enduring taunting at school. In the cases of both Mr. Walker-Hoover and Ms. Prince, school administrators faced criticism from those who said the schools didn’t meet their responsibility to stop the bullying and to let the parents know it was happening.
“If a child is being victimized at school and the parent doesn’t know what is going on, then I think the school has failed that family in preparing that parent to be on alert,” Ms. Byard said. “It also means the parent is not in the position to advocate for a child.”
The Bay State isn’t the only one paying attention to bullying this legislative season.
Late last month, Illinois lawmakers approved the Prevent School Violence Act, an update to the state’s anti-bullying law that not only bans cyberbullying or electronic harassment, but also says students may not be harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—the kind of specificity Ms. Byard said is needed in every policy and law.
“You have to have an inclusive, yet explicit, prohibition against various kinds of bullying. The ones that just say ‘no bullying allowed’ do not have the effect intended,” she said.
The Illinois law also creates a 15-member bullying-prevention task force to be appointed by the state superintendent. The bill awaited Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature as of earlier this week.
Educators and others say dealing with bullying requires changing the behaviors not only of students but also of the adults who supervise them.
“Bullying is just that hidden animal that is hiding in the woods sometimes that you have to address,” said Edward A. Boswell, the principal of Richard Ira Jones Middle School in Plainfield, Ill. “Kids are sneaky and passive-aggressive. A hidden nudge in a crowded cafeteria. A fry lobbed across the cafeteria.”
School leaders, he said, must create a climate where students know there are adults they can trust and to whom they can safely report information.
“We have to be aggressive with [bullies] and educate them,” Mr. Boswell said. “Bullying comes from kids who have their own issues or who are being bullied at home.”
Students at Jones Middle School can call an anonymous tip line to report instances of bullying. Mr. Boswell started the program while at another school, and it is now used in other middle schools in the 29,000-student Plainfield district. The school system’s policy handbook makes it clear that staff members have an obligation to report acts of bullying and to protect students who report bullying from retaliation.
Ms. Byard, of GLSEN, said students who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or LGBT, report being bullied at higher rates than non-LGBT students and often are less likely to report it because they don’t believe teachers and others in the schools will take their complaints seriously.
“The perception among students who are experiencing this problem is that teachers are not intervening on their behalf and won’t act even if asked. That’s a big gap we have to fill,” she said.
John Kelly, a school psychologist at Commack High School in Commack, N.Y., said changing school culture and the “boys will be boys” attitude common among adults is important in stamping out school bullying.
“We have to be the go-to people in the school for the kids to be able to trust us, and we have to respond in a way that is helpful, rather than hurting in any way,” said Mr. Kelly, a former president of the New York chapter of the National Association of School Psychologists. “Unless you are ready to address some of the underlying cultural issues, then you are going to continue to struggle with bullying in your school.”
Schools often fail to focus enough on bystanders—the majority of students, Mr. Kelly said. Those students can provide effective leverage against bullies, both by getting adults involved when they witness bullying and by protecting those most likely to be victimized.
“Oftentimes, victims don’t have friends, or are isolated in some way, and that makes them vulnerable,” he said. “The silent bystanders can intervene by bringing that person into a group and making sure they aren’t alone.”
The Online Factor
The advent of cyberbullying has made it more difficult for school administrators to track incidents, but Mr. Boswell, the Illinois middle school principal, said the trust he and his staff have built with students has paid off.
Students come of their own volition to teachers and administrators and show them Facebook groups or MySpace Web pages dedicated to harassing other students, giving school staff members the ability to follow up and discipline those involved. And Mr. Boswell encourages parents to create their own accounts on the social-networking websites their children use and to have access to their children’s online pages.
“We are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of our creative teenagers,” he said, “when it comes to how they address things with each other, and the technology they have access to.”
In Baltimore, school officials said they were prompted to respond quickly when an elementary school student with special needs last month said she wanted to kill herself after repeated taunting. The 8-year-old’s mother said the girl, who has cerebral palsy, had been teased, knocked off her crutches, and kicked in the head. At least one student has been suspended in the wake of the incident. According to local media reports, the school system and the city also face a $10 million lawsuit in a separate incident, involving allegations that a 9-year-old special education student in another school tried to hang himself after being bullied and having his complaints ignored.
Jonathan Brice, the executive director for student support and safety for Baltimore public schools, said teachers and other school staff members have to pay more attention to the seemingly small taunts and teases that often lead to something more serious.
“If you allow them to go unaddressed and don’t respond quickly, you run the risk of that situation escalating to a physical confrontation,” he said.
Lauren Abramson, the executive director of the Community Conferencing Center, a Baltimore-based organization that provides conflict-resolution training in the local schools and the larger community, said schools have a major role to play in helping young people learn how to resolve disputes without resorting to violence. Students who are bullying other students, she said, are often reflecting the cultural norms they see in their communities, which teach them to act out in response to conflict.
“We have to build our ability to talk to each other,” Ms. Abramson said. “The schools are a great place to rebuild that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week