Do schools' anti-bullying programs really help?

The suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, the latest in a series of student suicides allegedly tied to bullying, has educators nationwide reviewing their schools' prevention programs. Reports are mixed as to effectiveness, with one study finding they can have unintended negative effects.

Do school programs to prevent bullying actually work?

That's one question parents, educators, and researchers are increasingly asking after another student suicide that officials link to bullying – that of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla. This week, law enforcement officials arrested two girls in connection with Rebecca's death, alleging that they had tormented her both in person and online to the point of criminal stalking.

As programs to combat bullying proliferate in schools across the US, their effectiveness is coming under scrutiny – and early findings are mixed. Some say it's too soon to accurately judge antibullying programs, but a University of Texas study released earlier this month suggests that some school approaches to the problem may have the unintended effect of encouraging it, by planting in students' thought new bullying tactics and ways to hide them.

Still, researchers are finding that there are good ways and not-so-good ways for schools to combat the problem, and they note that the US lags other countries in studying bullying and how best to prevent it. 

“America is very country-centric and tends to think something is new because it has just become an issue here,” says Ron Avi Astor, a professor in urban social development at the University of Southern California here, and a member of a blue-ribbon panel that examined bullying on behalf of the American Educational Research Association. “But its real problem is that Americans want a quick fix, and behavior that is so socially and emotionally based does not lend itself to that.”

One-month antibullying programs, "with posters and T-shirts, will not cut it," concludes author Laurel Sturt, whose book "Davonte's Inferno" draws on her own experiences as a career elementary schoolteacher in New York's Bronx neighborhood. She suggests that schools' emphasis on student standardized testing has been driving out activities that don't help boost test scores, and that the school climate has deteriorated as a result.

In the US, October is designated as Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, and raising "awareness" about the problem has been a crucial component in other countries' efforts to bring about positive change, says USC's Professor Astor. Countries such as Norway, Japan, and Israel began tackling the problem decades ago after their own national tragedies: mass suicides of Norwegian students, the beheading of a Japanese student, and the stabbing death of an Israeli child. 

“The most important element of the changes is a shift in the overall climate of a school community,” says Astor. An emphasis on educating the whole person, rather than focusing solely on academic achievement, has resulted in significant and measurable decreases in bullying behavior, he says.

The study at the University of Texas at Arlington, published in the Journal of Criminology, analyzed data about 7,000 children from 195 US schools in a 2005-06 World Health Organization survey. It found that bullying behavior actually increased at schools with antibullying programs and declined at those without them. The authors suggest that behavior-based programs may be “teaching” bullies new ways to bully by showing them examples of bullying in videos and other materials, but they also note that strategies that are more sophisticated, including teachers' and administrators'  attitudes and modeled behavior, are likely to reduce bullying in the school community. 

Schools and communities in the US, meanwhile, are experimenting with ways to discourage bullying among students, including partnering with businesses to tackle particular facets of the problem, such as cyberbullying. (In most states, statutes require school officials to address bullying if the school's learning environment is being affected by the behavior.)

In rural Daviess County, Indiana, the school district has begun working with a social media monitoring firm, Social Net Watcher, to track students' social media activities.

"North Daviess Community Schools have been able to detect bullying activity by electronic means and able to document, address, and mediate reconciliation,” says educator Todd Whitlock, who is in charge of the district’s technology curriculum. “We have had an incident where we had to report the activity to police, as the administration felt the individual could be at harm,” he says. While police involvement helps only after the fact, it also helps parents start to understand what is going on, he notes. “Many parents are so far behind the curve in understanding where and how this behavior takes place that we have to help bring them into the picture,” Mr. Whitlock adds.

Indeed, evidence that led to the arrests of the two girls, ages 12 and 14, in Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide allegedly comes from online postings on Facebook and other social media sites.

Going forward, educators believe that antibullying approaches will need to be more comprehensive, says Suzy Thomas, associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California, in Los Angeles. 

“If a bullying program feels like an 'add-on' or a series of interventions that are incongruent with the general culture of the school, the program will be unsuccessful,” she says via e-mail. "The entire school culture must support safety for all students and oppose harassment and bullying in all forms." She is quick to add, however, that feat is difficult to accomplish and is "one that should be studied in school settings where this shift has actually occurred.”

Chicago’s Coalition for a Psychologically Healthy Community has been tackling bullying since the coalition was founded four years ago by Clifton Saper. He notes that creating a culture of “compassion” is important, as is bringing in the many stakeholders, such as parents, educators, and students. Some of its strategies have been drawn from Holocaust studies that focus on the behavior of the larger community.

“We strongly advocate moving the bystander into an 'upstander' role, and teach the skills an 'upstander' needs," says Dr. Saper, whose counselors are embedded in local schools. The coalition has used the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Miller Youth Exhibit to devise strategies for developing and encouraging “upstander” behaviors, he says.

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