School Climate & Safety

Simple and Not-So-Simple Steps Schools Can Take to Reduce Bullying

By Holly Kurtz — February 21, 2014 6 min read
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A research review has found that a reprimand from a teacher or a gesture of friendship from a fellow student can go a long way toward protecting victims from the harmful impacts of bullying. But in order to truly create a safe environment for all students, schools need to make more sweeping changes such as creating and enforcing anti-bullying policies that also address cyberharassment. Additionally, certain school characteristics—such as racial homogeneity, stand-alone middle schools, and academic tracking—are associated with higher rates of bullying.

These are just some of the findings and implications of a narrative research synthesis of more than 140 studies of bullying. The synthesis, authored by University of California Los Angeles professors Jaana Juvonen and Sandra Graham, appears in the current issue of the Annual Review of Psychology, a peer-refereed journal. The synthesis defines bullying as “targeted intimidation or humiliation,” typically by someone who is stronger or more popular than the victim. In other words, bullying does not need to be physical. In fact, physical bullying decreases with age to the point that, in high school, boys (who engage in more physical bullying throughout childhood) are just as likely as girls to turn to relational bullying such as ostracism or rumor mongering.

Most of the studies summarized, especially those set in the United States, have been published since the 1990s. Juvonen traces the surge not to an increase in bullying per se but to rising awareness sparked by the perception (not necessarily accurate) that the school shooters of the late ‘90s were driven to kill because they had been victims of bullying.

“Although there is SOME supportive evidence, it is too simplistic to think that ANY victim would resort to such violence,” she said.

Prior to these shootings, if Americans thought about bullying at all, they viewed it as a quirk of Japanese culture: Juvonen’s pre-Columbine review of news media coverage in Japan and the United States found that not only were Japanese newspapers about ten times more likely to run stories about school bullying, but American coverage also tended to focus on bullying in Japan.

It is perhaps not surprising that bullying has long been a concern in Japan and also in Scandinavia, where the population is relatively homogeneous. The research synthesis found that students feel safer from bullying when they attend racially diverse schools.

“If you think about bullying, that involves an imbalance of power,” said Juvonen. “If there’s a big, dominant group, the minority will feel [less empowered]...”

She added that students in diverse schools are also more likely to have friends or acquaintances of different races.

“When they have cross-ethnic friendships, they are less prejudiced toward that particular group or other groups in general,” she said.

The power imbalance between minority and majority groups also helps explain why, especially in an extremely homogeneous environment with well-established norms, students who seem different are more likely to be bullied. Risk factors include obesity, GLBTQ status, and disabilities.

Bullying also thrives when students make transitions to middle school. Here, again, power is to blame as students establish a new pecking order in their new school, which is generally larger and less structured than an elementary.

“And those who bully others rise to the top,” Juvonen said.

Additionally, formal academic tracking, which often begins in middle school, may breed bullying in that disruptive behavior is more common in low-track classes.

Sadly, a school climate in which most students feel safe and accepted can worsen a victim’s misery because the victim sees that he or she is sad even though peers are comfortable and happy.

“The biggest mistake we could make is to think that when things are okay for most kids, we no longer have to be concerned about bullying,” Juvonen said.

Victim self-blame is hardly rare. While bullies often blame others for their aggression, victims tend to believe that they have done something to cause or deserve the bullying. For this reason, Juvonen suggests that parents, friends and teachers encourage victims to stop blaming themselves. Teachers can also make a difference by reprimanding bullies. When Juvonen offers this advice to teachers, they sometimes say that they are too busy and also that the bully already knows that what she is doing is wrong. But Juvonen responds that the reprimand is not for the bully. It’s a way to show support for the victim.

“Every time somebody walks by and does not say a word, [the victim gets the message that]’re on your own,” she said.

Classmates can also help by befriending victims.

“It just takes one friend,” Juvonen said. “We don’t know what it is about that friend. It doesn’t seem like they use the friend to talk about their problem. It’s the idea that there’s somebody there for me.”

Juvonen emphasizes that there is a limit to what individual teachers and students can accomplish. In order to truly address bullying, administrators need to make bigger changes.

“The bare minimum that needs to be done at the district level and the school level is to have clear policies about bullying,” Juvonen said. “These policies must be practiced. Far too often, we have grand policies but the follow-through of bullying incidents is not consistent.”

Juvonen says the policies should address not only in-your-face aggression, but cyberbullying. Although it might use a new medium, cyberbullying is not that different from playground humiliation. Even the victims are often the same.

“I don’t think schools can ignore it,” she said. “It’s so clearly affecting kids’ behavior in school.”

Juvonen also suggests that schools de-emphasize rules and prohibitions. (e.g.: “This behavior will not be tolerated.”) For adolescents in particular, this can decrease buy-in. Instead, educators can make students feel more invested by asking them to brainstorm about how to protect everybody’s right to attend school without fear.

“They often come up with really brilliant suggestions of what is not tolerated,” Juvonen said

Juvonen is also cautiously optimistic about school-based programs that aim to reduce bullying by changing the attitudes and behaviors of everyone, especially the snickering bystanders who make things more entertaining for the bully. Examples of such programs include Olweus, KiVa , WITS and Steps to Respect.

Unfortunately, research suggests that such programs are, at best, moderately effective. However, Juvonen suggests that this may be because many rely on self-reports from students, who may say bullying has increased merely because the program has made them more aware of the problem. In addition, implementation is often uneven, with schools unable to afford the time commitment. Juvonen suggests that schools with scarce resources or divided faculties figure out a “light version” of the intervention that preserves core components without over-burdening the school.

Also promising are interventions that target children with behavioral problems, including bullying. Examples include intensive, pricey approaches such as Fast Track, and lighter-touch interventions such as Brainpower and the Coping Power Program.

A glaring hole is the shortage of programs for victims.

“It would be really important to discuss with [victims] that they’re not the only ones,” Juvonen said. “These are things that can be sorted out.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.