Lack of Knowledge Stymies Efforts to Stop Bullying

By Dakarai I. Aarons — August 12, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Despite increased attention to the bullying of school-age children, researchers, school leaders and federal education and health officials say more research is needed to pinpoint effective anti-bullying practices.

Phillip C. Rodkin, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Department of Education’s first summit on bullying prevention Wednesday that the reason school officials and other adults don’t know more about bullying is simple: “They didn’t ask. They didn’t want to know.”

He said adults need to spend more time talking to children about the social ecology of relationships to understand who is being bullied by whom and what factors in the school—including classroom management—create conditions for bullying relationships to persist.

One challenge that a number of presenters brought up at the Washington, D.C., summit was the lack of agreement about what constitutes bullying. Bullying is defined in some of the 43 state laws banning it, but the definition varies, as does the way researchers ask students and others about incidences of bullying and other aggressive behavior in schools.

Another set of challenges also stymies the work, said Dr. Joseph L. Wright, a pediatrician who is a senior vice president and head of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

Many of his fellow pediatricians lack knowledge about bullying and its connection to serious health risks for children. Wright said he has used his leadership positions in groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics to help raise awareness. He also is working to convince another group of people to take the physical and other consequences of bullying more seriously: the parents of his young patients who often write off the injuries as part of “kids being kids.”

“Many of us grew up with a different ethos around these behaviors and what they mean,” Wright explained.

The two-day summit, put together through the leadership of the federal Education Department and the Health Resources and Services Administration, is also a vehicle for federal agencies to show off the tools built from their collaboration.

One national tool is the website Find Youth Info, a project of the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs. As an extension of that site, the working group has created BullyingInfo.org. The sites bring together just about everything every federal department and agency has available to help administrators, teachers, students, and parents understand and deal with bullying. To have it all in one place is nothing short of a bureaucratic miracle.

Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the U.S. Surgeon General, called bullying a “public health issue” and said local advocates and educators have to build on the policy work of the federal government to get others to take bullying just as seriously as other health issues affecting youngsters.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who kicked off the summit by talking about “the plague of bullying,” said the department and its Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools are stepping up enforcement of civil rights violations and will issue policy guidance to schools about their responsibilities to make sure violations of civil rights law are addressed. Some of the bullying of children, with its sexist, homophobic and racist roots, can be considered violations of harassment law.

That said, Duncan was clear that his goal is “not to lock up America’s youth,” but rather to balance a hard-line approach with a need to get bullies the help they need and to emphasize preventative programs and interventions.

Others are stepping up, as well.

Stuart Snyder, a top Turner Broadcasting Service executive who runs the Cartoon Network and other channels, used the summit to announce a new anti-bullying campaign called “Stop Bullying. Speak Up.” The campaign, which will launch in October, also will involve sister network CNN. The news channel will produce a series of reports on bullying and hold a town hall meeting on bullying as part of its show “Anderson Cooper: 360°.”

Facebook, the social-networking giant, is addressing bullying through a partnership with the National PTA that aims to bring information about cyberbullying and Internet safety to local communities. It recently launched a safety center, where parents and others can go for more information, and it has staff members who monitor the site for cyberbullying and harassment and move to shut down any instances within 24 hours, said Mozelle W. Thompson, a member of the website’s advisory board and a former member of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

On Thursday, the second day of the conference, top Justice Department and Education Department officials are scheduled to talk about the role policy can play in preventing bullying, and a Tennessee schools superintendent is slated to discuss how school climate changes can reduce bullying. Stay tuned to District Dossier and to my Twitter feed for more.

[Update 8/16:Hot off the presses this morning is a new Spotlight on bullying from Education Week, where you can read a mixture of news stories and commentaries on the issue. Happy reading!]

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.