School Climate & Safety

When It Comes to Bullying, There Are No Boundaries

February 08, 2005 7 min read
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American policymakers have been urgently seeking solutions to school bullying and violence in recent years, but the issue had been receiving attention in many other countries long before it hit the U.S. spotlight.

“Bullying is a problem in every school in the world, which may seem like a simplistic answer, but it’s true,” said Andrew Mellor, the manager of the Anti-Bullying Network at the University of Edinburgh, an organization funded by the Scottish government to provide schools and students with information and support.

Most scholars generally accept the concept of bullying as an imbalance of power that exists over an extended period of time between two individuals, two groups, or a group and an individual in which the more powerful intimidate or belittle others. Bullying can be both physical and psychological, but physical bullying is not as common as the more subtle forms, such as social exclusion, name-calling, and gossip.

Children at New Castle Primary and Community School in Scotland take part in an exercise organized by the country's Anti-Bullying Network.

“Somehow, in the context of school, the way children experience victimization is common,” said Ron Astor, an education professor at the University of Southern California who has been studying school bullying in Israel since 1997. “Bullying is germane to schools.”

Most schools, he said, are introduced to the problem through an act of violence or suicide. In Scandinavia, researchers began the first significant push to understand the problem in the late 1960s. Still, it wasn’t until 1982, after three Norwegian adolescents committed suicide as a result of being bullied, that Norway launched an aggressive national campaign to deal with the intimidation.

Norway encouraged schoolwide intervention policies, including classroom rules establishing limits to unacceptable behavior, the formation of teacher-development groups, class meetings with children on peer relations and behavior, and counseling for bullies, victims, and parents. Studies showed a 50 percent decrease in school bullying by 1985. The country’s parliament strengthened efforts in 2002 with passage of a manifesto that committed the central government, local authorities, and some parent and teacher groups to a program of action in the hope of quickly eliminating the practice.

The movement to curb bullying has since moved into many other countries, including Scotland and Australia, which set up government-supported organizations and Web sites—such as the Anti-Bullying Network and Australia’s NoBully.com program—to help schools understand the issue and offer guidelines to establish effective school policies and teacher training.

‘The Bottom Line’

Mr. Mellor, the network’s manager, said most schools in Scotland have policies that include a clear statement that bullying is unacceptable, along with a means of addressing the behavior in the curriculum—either through social education classes or in-class peer-mentoring groups in which older students counsel and support younger ones.

In Australian, the government “sees the solution to bullying in terms of getting teachers and children to appreciate social-justice issues,” said Ken Rigby, an adjunct research professor at the University of South Australia. The theory goes, “If it could only be seen that it was wrong to harass and torment people who are different, … bullying [would] be solved.”

That idea, however, has limited appeal to schools, Mr. Rigby noted, because human nature usually doesn’t lead people to think fairly of every individual.

Many schools in Australia, he said, lean toward problem-solving interventions such as student or teacher mediators or class discussions in which children, including the bullies, exchange views about why problems occur and what should be done about them. But Mr. Rigby argued that, ultimately, the success of any program depends less on program content and more on how involved teachers and schools become. “Implementation is the bottom line as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “The extent to which a teacher takes [bullying] seriously makes a difference.”

In 1998, the Israel Ministry of Education adopted several codes that mandate schoolwide anti-bullying policies and extensive in-service staff and teacher training.

Common-Sense Solutions

The ministry also supports ongoing surveys and studies to craft individualized solutions. Surveys found that bullying occurred most often just after school hours, in hallways and restrooms, or during periods of limited teacher supervision. Many schools addressed their problems with simple, common-sense adjustments such as increasing the presence of police and lighting along school routes, having parents escort children to and from school, and placing more teachers in hallways and during recess. “The surveys are the first initial step,” said Mr. Astor of USC. “[They] bring the whole level of dialogue up a notch or two because they don’t start from an opinion; they start from facts.”

St. Michael's Primary School pupils role-play as part of an anti-bullying activity.

Those facts appear to be opening eyes. From 1998 to 2002, Israel saw a 25 percent reduction in all forms of school violence, including bullying, Mr. Astor said.

But collecting data is not always an option for developing countries. In many sub-Saharan African countries, a typical classroom houses 100 to 150 students, which can turn being a teacher into “a form of crowd control,” said Beverly Jones, the director of the Global Learning Group at the Academy for Educational Development, a Washington-based social-development organization.

Cheating, which is often the motive behind school bullying there, becomes rampant as struggling students try to force their more successful peers to share test answers, she said. “These are systems in which there are no second chances,” Ms. Jones said. “The consequences of these exams can literally be life and death for students and families,” because exam results mean going on to higher education or being trapped in menial work and poverty.

Classroom conditions don’t help. In some cases, tests are taken with as many as three students crammed to one desk. “Heaven help the student who happens to be a good student and covers up their paper so other students can’t see,” Ms. Jones said, because he or she may become a target of bullying.

In Japan, the culture itself can lead to bullying. A recent study found that more than 23,000 cases of bullying had occurred in nearly 8,000 schools in 2003. Much of that behavior is driven by the demand that individuals conform to the expectations of society.

Suicide and Truancy

“Conformity is very important in Japan,” said Toshio Ohsako, a consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization who has studied bullying in Japan. “If someone stands out, … they have a tendency to be bullied.”

As a result, close friends, teachers, and peers most often bully the nonconformists. An estimated 60,000 Japanese students were being bullied in 1995, and while those numbers have decreased, the drops have not been steady. Mr. Ohsako noted that truancy has become a problem in Japan, and that nearly 30 percent of the truants skip school because they fear being bullied.

The Japanese Ministry of Education responded to the problem by reinforcing teacher training on bullying, increasing the number of qualified school counselors and nurses available to help students cope, and drafting clearer guidelines and procedures that now allow schools to suspend children who inflict physical or psychological damage on their peers.

Pupils at a Scottish primary school work on team building as part of a program to prevent bullying. The problem of children tormenting others arises in schools around the world.

Despite those steps, Mr. Ohsako said it’s not easy for the government to intervene because bullying is such a sensitive and private subject.

“We need to develop the long-term perspective of students,” said Mr. Ohsako, who believes that social attitudes will have to change before bullying can be dealt with effectively. “It doesn’t work to just punish bullies. You have to make schooling more attractive to students by having activities, interesting subjects, good teachers, and a nice environment.”

Most researchers agree that allowing children to sink into boredom can be a precursor to bullying and that schools need to foster student activity. Some experts also contend that teaching children how to engage in pro-social peer pressure and interventions rather than simply remaining bystanders is another effective means of dealing with the problem.

Over the long haul, in fact, many doubt that laws or zero-tolerance policies work well.

“I don’t think laws are successful ways to deal with bullying,” said Mr. Rigby of the University of South Australia. “In many cases, it’s just a matter of reminding children that what they’re doing is not right.”

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Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as When It Comes to Bullying, There Are No Boundaries

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