School Climate & Safety

Bullying the Focus of National Initiative Launched by More Than 170 Mayors

By Evie Blad — July 22, 2014 3 min read
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Mayors of more than 170 cities have joined an anti-bullying initiative that aims to “develop a series of evidence-based responses to combat the epidemic of bullying in school districts nationwide,” the U.S. Conference of Mayors said in an announcement Tuesday.

The Mayors’ Campaign to End Bullying is a partnership of the national mayors organization and The BULLY Project, an advocacy organization inspired by the film BULLY, which documents how bullying affected the lives and families of five children. The 170 mayors, who all signed up in the initiative’s first weekend, pledged to “raise awareness, foster safe school climates, and work with educational experts partnering with The BULLY Project to create customized plans, rooted in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) practice— to address bullying in their local school districts,” the announcement said. A team from the University of Illinois will offer technical assistance to the mayors. The university’s college of education is home to Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology who has completed reams of research on bullying and peer relationships in schools.

“As community leaders, it is the responsibility of mayors to raise awareness and educate city residents about not only the potentially tragic effects of bullying, but also the many real ways that school climate impacts how our schools perform and innovate,” Sacramento Mayor and U.S. Conference of Mayors President Kevin Johnson said in the announcement. “Developing and implementing long-term anti-bullying initiatives that engage top-level community stakeholders including superintendents, law enforcement and philanthropic leaders is critical for the health and safety of not only our children, but all our residents.”

Check out the list of mayors here to see if yours is involved. I note participation from several large cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Houston, Kansas City, Mo., New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, and St. Louis.

Here are some issues that could affect the initiative’s success:

How much control do mayors have over these issues?

In many cities, mayors do not have authority to set policy in schools, which are governed by separately elected boards. How will those mayors address bullying in their schools? Will public screenings of films and efforts outside of schools really make a difference in their classrooms and hallways? The situation is even more complicated in New Orleans, which has nothing but charter schools. On the one hand, it’s difficult to implement programs when you don’t control the staff or the purse strings. On the other hand, the title of mayor can come with a big megaphone and the ability to influence all facets of a city.

How will new efforts fit with programs schools already have in place?

Bullying isn’t exactly a new subject of concern. In the wake of high-profile incidents, schools around the country have adopted prevention programs, anonymous reporting systems, and updated codes of conduct to address problematic peer interactions that can lead to long-term harm. And there are already other national initiatives at work in schools. Will the mayors’ initiative duplicate those efforts? If it comes with a new approach, will time-crunched school leaders be interested in adding more programming to a full school day? Or perhaps the evidence-based approaches, coupled with broader city support, will be the fix schools have been looking for.

How will other city departments be affected by the mayors’ focus?

The mayors’ announcement focuses on school-based interventions and awareness efforts, but I’m curious to see if any of these leaders will act on their own in other parts of the city. While mayors don’t always control schools, they do control police departments. Will these mayors push for policies already in place in some cities that criminalize bullying? A New York state court recently ruled that one such local law violated a student’s free speech rights, and school climate groups have argued that such harsh penalties can make victims less likely to report.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.