A number of high-profile episodes of school-related violence have captured public attention in recent years in both Canada and the United States. But there are no real data to suggest whether school bullying is rising or waning, according to Debra Pepler, director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University in Toronto.
"Now we have a label for it - it's like child abuse in the 1960s," says Dr. Pepler. Once people have a name for a problem, she suggests, they tend to see it everywhere.
Unfortunately, teachers seem not to see it. In a study she did with remote cameras and microphones on a school playground, Pepler found that only 4 percent of bullying episodes were observed by teachers and other school officials. The good news is that other children are aware of bullying. And some of them - 11 percent, her research found - are consistently willing to intervene constructively.
She advocates "whole school" approaches to combat bullying. "When the whole school learns the strategies, no one child becomes 'the enforcer.' "
Adults must examine their own behavior as well, she adds. Some adults may reject children who seek their support in dealing with bullies, perhaps because the issue seems so trivial.
Even though some children "are just not likeable," she says, adults' job is to ensure each child is included. "We've got to identify some strengths that child has and highlight them."
Pepler is concerned that "zero tolerance" policies toward school violence may uncover more problems than local counseling services are equipped to cope with. "Which of us wants to tolerate aggression?" Pepler asks. "But if we throw the highest-risk kids out of school, they'll fall in with other high-risk kids who will teach them how to sell drugs. Is that what we want?"
Some approaches that have worked include mapping a school's "hot spots" where bullying occurs and developing a "shared method of concern," which attempts to "generate an inkling of empathy" on the part of bullies and bystanders for the victims, Pepler says.
Here's a "script" teachers can use to interview suspected bullies:
"I hear you've been mean to (fill in name). Tell me about it."
Follow up a student's denial with: "Yes, but mean things have been happening to (name). Tell me about it."
Once the student has acknowledged involvement, say: "Okay, I was wondering what you could do to help in this situation."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor