By Susan Buttenwieser
I can still picture it vividly, like it was yesterday. The fifth grade recess routine. Watching the same group of boys pummel the same kid. None of us did anything, didn’t tell a teacher or help him in anyway. Not even when they smashed his head against a radiator.
It was the 1970s, but my experience is still a common occurrence in schoolyards, hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias and classrooms today. Bullying is a serious issue in schools across the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a public health problem, with one in three students being bullied. Boys are more likely to be physically bullied while girls face emotional bullying.
Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are particularly susceptible to bullying. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, three-quarters of LGBT students are verbally harassed and over one third are physically harassed because of their sexual orientation; 30% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Grade point averages for these students are between nine and 15 percent lower than for others.
The negative effects from bullying can last after the taunting, shoving and wedgies have ended, well into adulthood, and even a whole lifetime. Victims are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal feelings. Childhood bullying is linked to lower educational levels, increased chance of being unemployed and having a lower salary at age 50. And the bullies themselves are at increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood.
But coming up with solutions to this age-old problem has proven to be elusive. Almost every state has a safe school law but very few, if any, are funded. This means schools receive little support on how to implement laws, or the necessary training needed to reduce and prevent bullying. Many of the widely used bullying prevention programs and practices have shown little evidence of effectiveness, and lack substance. Merely putting up posters in school hallways is not nearly enough.
Lack of involvement and support from teachers, school staff and parents adds to the risk of bullying. But sometimes they don’t realize what is going on, even when it’s happening right in front of them. “School personnel often do not fully appreciate how unsafe students feel,” says Jonathan Cohen, president of the National School Climate Center. “In fact, in our assessment of schools nationwide, the single most consistent finding is that the adults in the community—parents and school personnel—view students’ social-emotional safety as much less of an issue than the students themselves report. There are several factors that contribute to this: too often adults label mean, cruel and/or bullying behaviors as normal or kids being kids. Due to this, students vastly under-report instances of bullying to adults, because they do not believe adults will help the situation; and, a significant amount of mean, cruel and bullying behaviors are subtle, and therefore harder to track from an adult perspective.”
But when adults do get involved, it is not always in a helpful way. Many programs are focused on identifying and punishing the bully, and some states mandate that school administrators report bullying to the police. But researchers have found that these “zero-tolerance” programs, where schools rely on law enforcement, suspensions, expulsions, metal detectors and other overly aggressive tactics, don’t work either.
“There are over 15 years of empirical research that underscores the fact that zero tolerance policies hurt. They do not help,” says Cohen. “In fact, we know that restorative practices can have a much more profound effect on student behavior and success over the long-term than punitive-based policies that merely address the instance but not the underlying causes for the behavior.”
And one study found that the students at schools with bullying prevention programs were actually more likely to be bullied than schools without these programs. Researchers posited that bullies were adopting the language from the anti-bullying programs.
A major roadblock is that many anti-bullying programs are centered around the bully and on short-term lessons. They don’t engage all members of the school community, both children and adults, and are not grounded in educational and developmental theory, say the authors of Rethinking Effective Bully and Violence Prevention Efforts.
Instead, positive development of the school community should be fostered rather than a focus on problem prevention. Everyone in that community, including the students, needs to work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of school they want to have. Having an inclusive curriculum is crucial. For example, GLSEN reports that students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum were less likely to feel unsafe. And a more diverse curriculum where everyone’s history is learned will have benefits that extend far beyond preventing bullying. The more students know about one another, the more cultures and difference are celebrated, the better.
And then of course, there are the witnesses. Bullies need an audience. Effective programs need to motivate them to step in and reach out to an adult. Empower the kids, like ten-year old me, with my jagged bowl haircut and unfashionable bulky parka, standing on the sidelines, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone, just grateful not be on the receiving end of all those fists, all that hate, to do something.
Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women.
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