School & District Management

Bullies Beware!

By Debra Viadero — May 28, 1997 11 min read
Classroom bullying is more prevalent than many educators think, and experts say it should no longer be tolerated as ‘part of growing up.’

A 5th grader terrorizes a smaller boy on the playground. A middle school girl, mature for her age, stands up to speak and her classmates begin “mooing.” Sixth grade girls spread malicious rumors about a loner in their class.

It happens all the time in schools around the world. Bullying, one of those seemingly timeless fixtures of childhood, takes many shapes and forms. Yet for all the sunny childhoods darkened by taunts and torments, research on the subject is rare--especially in the United States, where researchers have focused more broadly on violence.

The small number of studies that have cropped up in recent years speak to the subject with remarkable unanimity, however, and offer some useful lessons for educators.

Teachers and principals, the research suggests, underestimate the amount of bullying that takes place under their noses--on playgrounds, in hallways, even in classrooms. And too many educators are reluctant to get involved.

“Kids say that when they tell the adults about the bullying, adults don’t take them seriously, or they make them feel responsible for going back and working it out,” said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.

Some adults dismiss such complaints, reasoning that “kids will be kids.” To them, bullying is inevitable, something everyone must learn to handle.

But researchers who have studied the issue say the problem is too pervasive and too damaging to ignore.

“You’re talking 10, 11, 12 percent of kids saying their lives are miserable in school,” said John H. Hoover, an associate professor of teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota. “I don’t think that’s something that kids need to go through.”

Looking to Norway

The father of much of the current research on bullying is Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. He began studying the phenomenon when his country launched a national campaign against bullying in the early 1980s. The public outcry in Norway came after three boys, ages 10 to 14, committed suicide in 1982. All three had been frequent victims of bullies.

Mr. Olweus surveyed 130,000 children in Norway and 17,000 children in Sweden. Of that group, he found, 15 percent said they had been bullied “now and then” or more frequently.

Similar or higher rates have turned up in surveys from Japan, Canada, England, Finland, Ireland, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Studies from the United States have involved smaller numbers of children, and their findings about the prevalence of bullying vary: Anywhere from 10 percent to 24 percent of American students say they have been bullied at some recent time in their school careers.

Virtually all the studies on the subject, however, confirm the wide gap between the amount of bullying students endure and how much of it their teachers perceive.

Educators often play down the amount that goes on in their schools partly because they don’t see a lot of it. Most bullying takes place where there is little adult supervision or where the adults in charge don’t have the same kind of authority that teachers do.

“I’ve had to take teachers and walk them around on the playground to show them,” said Carla Garrity, a Denver psychologist who has developed an anti-bullying program for schools.

The studies also show that bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and falls off in high school.

Not Just Boys

Girls can be bullies, too. They just go about it differently, relying more on verbal and psychological techniques than physical intimidation. A girl might, for example, pointedly exclude a classmate from a birthday party or start a hurtful rumor.

Whether they label it harassment or bullying, most researchers agree that the roots of the problem may be partly cultural.

And, whether male or female, bullies tend to have more family problems than other children, to be physically or emotionally abused, and to be disciplined inconsistently at home.

Experts say there is a fine line between a bully, someone who systematically and chronically torments a classmate, and the more pervasive, random harassment that students endure from their peers on a daily basis.

Such ''random acts of unkindness” are part of the daily fabric of school life, said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor and chairwoman of the department of administration, policy studies, and reading at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

She and her colleagues studied eight middle and high schools in New York state over a period of two years, beginning their interviews with students by asking, simply, “What’s it like to be a teenager today?”

Out poured tales of harassment, most of it verbal and all of it hurtful. As one girl told the researchers: “People make fun of you. They make fun of your hair and the way you dress. They’re just cruel.”

Whether they label it harassment or bullying, however, most researchers agree that the roots of the problem may be partly cultural. Students learn to bully and tease from the actions--or inactions--of the adults they see around them and on television.

“If you look at television situation comedies, there’s a lot of angry humor out there and kids bring it to school,” Mr. Hoover said.

One of Mr. Olweus’ recent studies even suggests that some teachers may be bullies themselves. He found that as much as 2 percent of the bullying that children endure comes from teachers who use sarcasm as a teaching tool.

‘I Hate It’

Children also learn to bully others when adults do not tell them it’s wrong.

“What we found was that kids believe that teachers thought it was OK to behave this way because teachers didn’t intervene--especially kids coming into middle school,” Ms. Shakeshaft said.

As a result, students were confused. “Kids would say, ‘I know I’m not supposed to feel bad because it’s only a joke. But I do. I hate it,’” Ms. Shakeshaft said.

Even worse, teachers sometimes inadvertently reinforce bullying behavior in their schools.

Ms. Stein told of a school studied by the Wellesley researchers where recess activities had become a kind of ritual. The boys played with balls and the girls played with jump ropes. The students brought their own play equipment from home because the school could not afford to furnish it.

One week, the boys decided it would be more fun to steal the girls’ jump ropes. The girls complained, and were told to work out their dispute with the boys. After listening to the children fussing for a week, the teachers banned jump ropes altogether.

“Thereby taking away the girls’ only playthings,” Ms. Stein said. “The boys gloated about this for weeks.” The lesson for this class was that the boys had won.

Although they rarely take a stand, teachers hate the teasing and tormenting, too. But they sometimes feel powerless to stop it.

In fact, a study by North Dakota’s Mr. Hoover suggests that, if not told otherwise, students often believe that might makes right.

He and his colleagues, Ronald Oliver and Richard Hazler, surveyed 207 middle and high school students in Minnesota, Ohio, and South Dakota in the early 1990s. They found that students agreed that victims brought bullying on themselves and that bullying “helps people by making them tougher.”

Curbing Bullies

Although they rarely take a stand, teachers hate the teasing and tormenting, too, research shows. But they sometimes feel powerless to stop it.

“When we talked to teachers, they said they didn’t think it was acceptable, and they didn’t like the adolescent climate at all,” Ms. Shakeshaft said. “But they didn’t know how to stop it, and they felt that they wouldn’t be supported by their principals.”

In turn, she added, principals feared a lack of support from their superintendents and from parents.

Yet when the researchers interviewed parents and the superintendents, they, too, agreed that peer harassment is “awful behavior” and that it should be stopped.

“Probably there’s more support among adults than we believe,” Ms. Shakeshaft concluded.

James Nolan, the principal of McCormick Middle School in McCormick County, S.C., believes that when adults make a concerted effort, it is possible to stop young tyrants in their tracks.

Mr. Nolan said surveys taken at his school two years ago showed that nearly half the students had suffered at the hands of bullies at least once in their school careers.

“And they said they were picked on most often in classrooms,” he added. “That was the place that really shocked us.”

The principal and his staff launched an anti-bullying campaign with the help of researchers from the University of South Carolina’s Institute on Family and Society. Using a successful prevention program pioneered by Mr. Olweus in Norway, the staff and the researchers engineered regular schoolwide discussions on bullying. The school also adopted and posted three rules: “We will not bully others. We will help children who are being bullied. We will try to include shy children who tend to be left out.”

Clear sanctions were set against bullying, and the staff began identifying both bullies and their victims for intensive counseling, among other measures.

“Part of our success came because nobody had used the word ‘bully’ before,” Mr. Nolan said. “Now everyone knows we’re not going to tolerate bullying behavior from anybody and we’ll call parents in and say, ‘Hey, your son is a bully.’”

At the end of the 1995-96 school year, when researchers again surveyed students at the school, they found that the campaign had paid off. The number of students who reported that they were bullied had dropped from nearly half to 22 percent.

McCormick is one of about 20 schools in three rural South Carolina districts that are working with the institute. The researchers, working under a two-year federal grant, also distributed their materials on bullying to local church leaders to use in discussion groups and spoke to parent-teacher groups.

“Really the only thing that’s going to stop any kind of violence is a comprehensive, multipronged approach,” said Vicky C. Flerx, the researcher working with those schools.

Tested Strategies

The program McCormick Middle School used is one of several field-tested anti-bullying tactics available to schools.

The bottom line, researchers say, is that adults should not tolerate bullying or even teasing. In surveys and interviews, students say all of it hurts.

One popular approach is a “Bullyproof” curricula developed by Ms. Stein of Wellesley College, who is best known for her study documenting instances of gender-related harassment and discrimination in schools.

She contends that early bullying behavior, like that exhibited by the boys who stole the girls’ jump ropes at recess, can lead to outright sexual harassment in middle school and high school.

In fact, studies show that much of the teasing that goes on during those years is based on gender. Ms. Shakeshaft’s study, for example, showed that adolescent girls who show early physical development are a particular target of harassment in middle and high school.

These are the girls who get “mooed” by classmates or labeled “sluts” or “whores"--abuse that comes from both boys and girls.

Ms. Stein’s curriculum, aimed at 4th and 5th graders, does not dwell on adult terms like “sexual harassment.” Instead, the curricula walks children through a variety of activities designed to heighten their awareness of the problem. They learn the difference between teasing and bullying, act as junior researchers by recording instances of bullying they see, and act out in role-playing situations ways of dealing with name-calling.

What’s more, “you can outnumber the bullies if you teach the silent majority to stand up,” said Ms. Garrity, the Denver psychologist, whose anti-bullying program is aimed at students who stand mutely by while a bully taunts a classmate.

“If children aren’t taught otherwise,” she said, “they’ll side with the bully--even nice kids who certainly know better but are frightened that the bully will turn on them.”

And schools can survey students to find out where the hot spots are for bullying activities.

“Then you can subtly change the adult-student ratio in those areas,” said Mr. Hoover of the University of North Dakota.

“But the number-one thing is to support the victims in the grieving process,” he added. “Let’s at least have one adult this kid can absolutely depend on to support him.”

The bottom line, researchers say, is that adults should not tolerate bullying or even teasing. In surveys and interviews, students say all of it hurts.

And the consequences of ignoring bullying behavior can be great. Mr. Olweus’ studies show that bullies, many of whom were bullied themselves at home, are four times more likely to grow up to be criminals than are nonbullies.

And the trauma they inflict on other students stays with the victims long afterward, often leading to a lifetime of unhappy school memories and, in some cases, depression.

What is more, said Mr. Hoover, not much learning takes place when students are in constant fear. “We have to ask ourselves what the quality of life should be for these young people.”

For more information:

Bully-Proofing Your School, by Carla Garrity, Kathryn Jens, William Porter, Nancy Sager, and Cam Short-Camilli, 1996, Sopris West, Longmont, Colo.

Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do, by Dan Olweus, 1993, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, Britain, and Cambridge, Mass.

Bullyproof: A Teacher’s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use With Fourth and Fifth Grade Students, by Nan Stein, Lisa Sjostrom, and Emily Gaberman, 1996, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and the NEA Professional Library.

A version of this article appeared in the May 28, 1997 edition of Education Week as Bullies Beware!


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