School Climate & Safety

Tough Penalties for Bullying Ineffective; Broader Approach Needed, Report Says

By Evie Blad — May 10, 2016 3 min read
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Some common ways schools work to prevent and respond to bullying are ineffective and, in some cases, counterproductive, a panel of researchers assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine wrote in a report released today.

Tough penalties for bullying, which have grown popular as public awareness of its effects has grown, may actually make the problem worse, the researchers found. That’s because victims may view the consequences as too harsh or fear retaliation, which may keep them from reporting bullying.

Zero-tolerance policies, which lead to suspensions for offenders, “are not effective at reducing bullying and thus should be discontinued, with the resources redirected to evidence-based policies and programs,” the report says.

The panel was created at the request of a group of private foundations and federal agencies to survey the research on the prevalence of bullying, its causes, and the most effective methods of intervention and prevention. The resulting 311-page report includes recommendations about more consistent definitions of bullying and work to determine its prevalence.

Bullying is a real problem, not a rite of passage, and the effects on children’s psychological health and life outcomes are proven, the report says:

There is an implication that individuals who are bullied must have ‘asked for’ this type of treatment, or deserved it. Sometimes, even the child who is bullied begins to internalize this idea. For many years, there has been a general acceptance when it comes to a child or adolescent with greater social capital or power pushing around a child perceived as subordinate—such that you can almost hear the justification: ‘kids will be kids.’ The schoolyard bully trope crosses race, gender, class, ethnicity, culture, and generations, appearing in popular media ranging from Harry Potter to “Glee,” and “Mean Girls” to Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Its prevalence perpetuates its normalization. But bullying is not a normal part of childhood and is now appropriately considered to be a serious public health problem.

While bullying has long existed, the nature of the act is changing as social media and mobile technology make it easier for perpetrators to take their peer harassment outside of school environments and into other areas of their lives, the report says. Also contributing to the problem are shifting racial and ethnic demographics in many parts of the country, the report says, adding that children with fewer same-ethnicity peers are at higher risk for being victims.

Because federal agencies and researchers use a variety of definitions and measurement methods, it’s difficult to pin down the exact prevalence of the problem, but the researchers estimate that “school-based bullying likely affects between 18 and 31 percent of children and youth, and the prevalence of cyber victimization ranges from 7 percent to 15 percent of youth.” Some populations, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youths and those with disabilities are more vulnerable.

So schools should take the problem seriously, but many of them should also rethink their approaches for preventing bullying and disciplining perpetrators, the report says.

A common prevention approach, which present narrow content on bullying to all students, often in the form of an assembly, are only modestly effective, it finds. Instead, the researchers recommend a broader, social-emotional approach that focuses on issues like forming healthy relationships, responding to conflict, and making decisions. That approach can be supplemented with more targeted prevention programs for students at higher risk of bullying, the report says.

Further study is necessary to determine what works best, it says.

“This is a pivotal time for bullying prevention,” researchers conclude. “Reducing the prevalence of bullying and minimizing the harm it imparts on children can have a dramatic impact on children’s well-being and development. Many programs and policies have been developed, but more needs to be known about what types of programs or investments will be most effective.”

Image: iStockphoto.

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