Andrew A. Nelles/AP/file
Michael Engebretson (l.) says he is a victim of school bullying at Larkin High School in Elgin, Ill. An anti-bullying Illinois law enacted June 28 prohibits bullying in public school districts and nonpublic, nonsectarian elementary and secondary schools.

School bullying summit's big hope: an anti-bullying tipping point

The Department of Education convened its first summit on school bullying Wednesday. It comes as state lawmakers nationwide step up their efforts to pass anti-bullying laws.

In the wake of several high-profile bullying incidents, the Department of Education is hosting the first federal school bullying summit Wednesday and Thursday.

Suicides linked to bullying – including the January suicide of Phoebe Prince, which has resulted in nine felony charges against her Massachusetts classmates – have drawn particular attention to the issue, and several states are considering or enacting anti-bullying laws.

“People are really feeling the heat now,” says David Waren, education director for the Anti-Defamation League, who is attending the conference, noting that 43 states have now enacted some form of anti-bullying legislation.

“This is the first time this kind of initiative has taken place, bringing together so many disparate elements, and there really is a hope that it will create a critical mass or tipping point ... and out of that will create a more strategic and aligned and leveraged effort,” he adds.

In his opening remarks, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that he sees addressing bullying – and the broader issues around ensuring that students feel safe and have a school free of disruptions – as integral to education policy.

“A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. It is a school where kids drop out, tune out, and get depressed,” said Secretary Duncan in his prepared remarks, dismissing the notion that bullying can be “shrugged off” or is an elusive concept.

“Bullying is definable,” he said. “Good prevention programs work to reduce bullying. And bullying is very much an education priority that goes to the heart of school performance and school culture.”

The metrics of bullying

At the summit, Duncan highlighted some of the statistics:

• In 2007, nearly 1 out of 3 students in middle school and high school said they had been bullied at school during the school year.

• 1 out of 9 high schoolers – 2.8 million students – said they had been pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on during the last school year. Another 1.5 million said they were threatened with harm.

• 900,000 high schoolers reported being cyberbullied in 2007.

Duncan promised new coordination among federal agencies, better data to understand the problem and solutions, and more federal funding, especially for those schools with the greatest needs.

Still, some bullying experts including Mr. Waren of ADL say the funding is far short of where it needs to be, and that many programs have been hurt severely by recent cuts.

“The most challenging thing that we are facing right now is that when Obama and Duncan came into office, instead of shifting the Safe Schools program to focus more on building a positive school climate and bullying prevention, they slashed the budget by 40 percent,” says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

Crafting effective solutions

Block grants – the source for many schools trying to implement new anti-bullying programs – were eliminated and many counselors have lost their jobs, she notes.

Ms. Willard says she’s happy to see the increased conversation around bullying prevention, though she worries about unintended consequences of some laws: Requiring schools to keep track of bullying reports, for instance, can act as a disincentive for young people to report, since the schools want to minimize the incidents they have attached to their school.

And she notes that, often, it’s the adults in the building that really need the training in how to respond effectively to bullying.

One recent study found that when young people victimized by moderate-to-severe bullying reported the incidents, the situation improved just a third of the time.

For 29 percent of students, it got worse.

“If I could wave a magic wand and make one change, I would insist that one week following a reported incident, the target, the aggressor, and the target’s parents and aggressor’s parents are all recontacted to evaluate the effectiveness of the school’s response,” says Willard. The problem isn’t that principals don’t want to respond, she adds, “it’s that we aren’t giving them the tools they need.”

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