Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

The Best Antidote to Bullying? Community-Building

By Jim Dillon — December 10, 2013 4 min read

Bullying doesn’t wound students; it pours salt on a pre-existing injury, causing it to hurt even more. Most students who are bullied have already been hurt. They are wounded by exclusion when they find themselves without friends or allies. They are wounded when they fail in school, or when they don’t gain the approval of their peers or, all too often, their teachers. They are wounded when they don’t get the help they need. And they are wounded when they feel they have no place to go, or no one to talk to.

Preventing students from being hurt in the first place is the most effective way to thwart, as well as dramatically reduce, bullying. When students are members of a strong community, they feel accepted and supported, not isolated and excluded. They can trust that there will be someone to help them if they are in need. A school community is a place where people value each other and have a sense of responsibility for helping everyone feel safe and protected. Not all schools are communities, however.

Some schools focus solely on individual achievement. True, students need to be concerned about their own grades, about following the rules, and respecting their teachers; they should also be challenged, though, to care about the safety and the success of others. Students can learn how to support and defend their peers—and not just those with whom they share obvious similarities. Students should learn how to care about and defend those who might be different from them. As schools expect students to meet high academic standards, so can they expect students to meet high moral standards.

When schools lack a strong sense of community, the result is an environment in which students gravitate toward either “the winners” or “the losers.” Students quickly learn the difference, as well as the importance of associating with the popular kids.

When students are members of a strong community, they feel accepted and supported, not isolated and excluded."

Students who bully often seek to improve their social standing and demonstrate their social prowess to their peers. They carefully select as their targets the most unpopular students, those without friends or allies, in an attempt to earn a place in their desired social group.

Students who witness bullying often refrain from standing up for the victims, not from a lack of empathy but from the fear of being associated with the targeted student. Unfortunately, their reluctance to intervene or report bullying gives tacit approval to the student who bullies, giving that student license to continue. And the problem grows—other students are tempted to bully as a way to move up the social ladder.

The problem is compounded because students who bully strike beyond the radar of adult supervision. This is a subtle pattern almost impossible to detect by even the most caring and competent educator. Under these conditions, bullying can persist in even the most successful and high-achieving schools. The methods that successfully control other inappropriate school behaviors don’t work when it comes to bullying. In fact, educators who are effective classroom managers are often unable to control the bullying that can happen in plain sight.

For educators to be effective at bullying prevention and reduction, they must shift their attention from only disciplining students who bully to empowering students who could be in a position to stop it. When bystanders are given the skills, the confidence, and the courage to intervene or report abusive behavior, the student who bullies is disempowered. When the number of students who defend and protect their vulnerable peers grows, the school’s social norms shift from the unspoken acceptance of bullying to one where bullying is not tolerated.

Building a strong school culture in which this behavior violates social norms is a challenge—often, even more difficult than implementing policies or programs. But it is also a necessary goal for any school. It requires a commitment for changing how individuals see and treat each other. It requires the nurturing and strengthening of the school’s social connections. When bullying prevention is reframed as community-building, it moves from a problem-solving scenario to an opportunity for improving the learning environment for everyone.

Schools can begin this healing and healthful process by asking staff members and students to consider and discuss the differences between a group of individuals and a community. Students should explore what their responsibilities and obligations to their peers are. Staff and students should talk about the existing challenges and the barriers to helping others. From these discussions, the school community can develop specific strategies for what to do and say when anyone witnesses an act of bullying. Students can and should play a role in planning how to make their school a better place, to insure that everyone is treated with respect.

When schools encourage these discussions, they send a message to students that looking out for others is one of their core values. Educating students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning environment is the best preparation for becoming good citizens.

As schools become stronger communities, they provide students with the protection and the platform they need for continuous growth and learning. This should be the goal of bullying prevention and for how we educate all students.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Best Antidote to Bullying? Community-Building

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Washington Teacher Trainer - (WAVA)
Washington, United States
K12 Inc.
Strategic Account Manager
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
President and CEO
Alexandria, Virginia
National Association of State Boards of Education
CCLC Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Boy, 15, Injured in Arkansas School Shooting; Classmate Held
A 15-year-old boy shot and seriously injured a fellow student Monday morning at an Arkansas junior high school, authorities said.
1 min read
Traffic is lined up March 1, 2021 outside Watson Chapel Junior High School in Pine Bluff, Ark. as parents pick up students after a shooting at the school.
Traffic is lined up March 1, 2021 outside Watson Chapel Junior High School in Pine Bluff, Ark. as parents pick up students after a shooting at the school.
Staton Breidenthal/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where
Education Week is tracking shootings in K-12 schools in 2021. See the number of incidents and where they occurred in our map and data table.
3 min read
Sign indicating school zone.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
Gremlin/E+