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Equity & Diversity

Bullying Remains Federal Priority; More Research Needed

By Nirvi Shah — September 21, 2011 2 min read
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When Congress gets around to revamping the No Child Left Behind law, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he’d like to see a provision that calls for surveying students about bullying.

Duncan told this to a crowd Wednesday at the second annual national conference on bullying, sponsored by his department and several other agencies. Students should be asked questions about whether they feel safe in school and if they would recommend their school to another student. He said students are a “huge missing part of the equation” on addressing bullying.

The conference was yet another reminder of the current administration’s emphasis on bullying. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama hosted a White House summit on the same topic. Last year, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights sent a guidance letter to school districts advising them how to handle cases of bullying and warning them that their failure to address harassment and discrimination could lead to federal sanctiions.

This week’s conference coincides with the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old from New York who killed himself Monday. Last year, Jamey recorded a video for the “It Gets Better” series, which is intended to give gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered teens—frequent targets of bullies—hope that their lives will improve. But in recent blog posts, Jamey reported being bullied both in person and online.

At the conference, a Michigan theater group composed mostly of students told stories of some cases of so-called “bullycide.”

“Suicide is a card in a Rolodex of choices,” said Mackenzie Donnelly, telling her own story of considering suicide.

The current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act does contain provisions that address school safety. But part of the goal was to show which schools were dangerous and give students the option of transferring out of them.

But when or whether the law will be reauthorized is unknown, Duncan said. “Congress is struggling to do anything these days.”

As much as the national movement to curb bullying has done to draw attention to the issue, addressing it may need to be a very localized effort, said several researchers at the gathering.

First there needs to be more research on the bullying prevention methods schools are employing, said Susan Swearer of the University of Nebraska. And programs need to consider family factors that influence students’ behavior: domestic violence, authoritarian parenting, physical discipline, poor parental supervision, and so on.

“None of our efforts really look at the family factors,” she said, so bullying prevention programs don’t typically address them. “We have to address this if we’re going to stop bullying.”

Those who are practitioners in schools likely don’t have the time to research programs and outcomes, said Lucia Martin, a school counseling specialist for Anne Arundel County schools in Maryland. But her district has conducted a survey of thousands of students as well as parents and teachers each year for several years, giving the district some indication of what programs might be effective.

However the results are used to tailor approaches at different schools, she said.

“What works in south county is not going to work... near Baltimore County or Annapolis,” she said of her sprawling 75,000-student district.

While prevention programs are critical, as are strategies to address bullying when it happens, she said there is another frontier in the fight against.

“How do we breed resilience in our children up front?”