Bullying prevention: Can students make kindness cool?

Schools are increasingly turning to students to develop and implement anti-bullying initiatives designed not just to discourage bullying, but also to empower students to intervene.

Mel Evans/AP/File
People hold candles as they gather for an anti-bullying rally, Oct. 12, in Sayreville, N.J.

When Casey Waletich, the director of safety and operations at the Hillsboro School District in Oregon, decided to launch an anti-bullying initiative in his district, he knew he had to get the students on board.

“We knew based off of research that this had to be a student-led effort. The days of having schools initiate things without the buy-in of the students are over. We had to capture the students’ voice,” Mr. Waletich says.

So he got a group of students together and asked them how they would like to do things. The resulting campaign, “Re-think, Redefine, Where Do You Stand?” launched in October 2014 to coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month.

The Hillsboro campaign is just one example of how schools nationwide are increasingly turning to students to develop and implement anti-bullying initiatives designed to not just discourage bullying, but also to empower students to intervene on each others' behalf. Bullying prevention experts say student intervention is often the key to stopping bullies.

But the key getting that message across is getting students and teachers to collaborate, says Stan Davis, a former social worker and guidance councilor who runs the Stop Bullying Now initiative.

“Overall, the best initiatives are a partnership. Student-run initiatives have the energy and the buy-in, but students aren’t always well versed in prevention. Meanwhile, kids don’t usually listen to top-down programs. They roll their eyes because it doesn’t fit with their reality. A true collaboration understands which things kids and adults do best,” he says.

In 2013, some 20 percent of high school students reported experiencing bullying, according to federal data compiled on StopBullying.gov – the figure jumps to 28 percent when middle school students are included. Some 70 percent of young people say they have witnessed bullying. Those are the kids that anti-bullying campaigns are ultimately trying to turn into first responders, because research has shown that bullying stops in a matter of seconds if someone intervenes.

The federal data also suggests that most bullying takes place during middle school and involves verbal bullying or social bullying, such as name calling or spreading rumors about the victim. And while cyberbullying has received a lot of attention in the media in recent years, most bullying takes place on school grounds. Cyberbullying only makes up around 10 percent of all bullying.

Bullying can affect the entire education process by impacting both the mental and physical health of students, says Julie Herzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center at the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER).

“When we think about bullying, it impacts education, it can cause school avoidance, loss of concentration, absenteeism," in addition to physical and mental health, she says.

Moreover, research has found that kids who are bullies in elementary school are six times more likely to commit a crime by the age of 24.

In response to these issues, PACER creates curricula for schools to use to teach kids how to intervene when they see someone being bullied. Mr. Davis agrees that teaching kids to intervene responsibly is key to a campaign’s success.

“In Indiana they are training kids in the concept of leadership. But by leadership we don’t mean being outspoken, we mean quietly doing the right thing. Kids can do a lot by supporting and encouraging students who are mistreated, walk with them, sit with them at lunch, encourage them. These actions are tremendously effective because they allow kids to heal. It’s important that everyone feels included and valued,” he says.

Ultimately, though, the students are the ones who have to deliver that message to each other, experts say. According to a 2011 survey conducted in a high school in Stamford, Conn., 72 percent of students said they value anti-bullying efforts more when they come from their peers.

In recent years, anti-bullying initiatives in which students have a central role have been implemented from West Jordan, Utah, (where students participated in a three-year character-building program to stop bullying) to Lisbon, Iowa, and Goodrich, Mich. In all of these cases school officials reported that the campaigns were effective because students took ownership.

“This year I’ve noticed our students are already thinking about what they need to do to continue this momentum and make Sunset Ridge an accepting, safe environment,” Julie Scherzinger, a guidance councilor at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan told the West Jordan Journal. “Students come up to me and ask if anyone needs help.”

Most recently, students from Reno, Nev., launched an anti-bullying campaign that aims to make kindness cool. As part of the campaign, students will post selfies holding postcards with descriptions of random acts of kindness written on them, bringing anti-bullying into the realm of social media, reported the local ABC affiliate.

“There are many reasons why having students at the center is important,” says Ron Avi Astor, a professor in social development at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Bullying takes place when adults are absent. The kids see and hear more and can go and inform adults when they aren’t there to respond immediately.”

Teaching kids to step up when someone is being victimized teaches them how to be responsible citizens, he adds.

“It’s empowering when kids can work to save lives, to be good friends, and make their schools safer. The way children treat each other when adults are absent, that’s key,” says Dr. Astor. "When we educate kids about what it’s like to be in a peer group, when they learn how to treat each other, that does society a lot of good.”

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