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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/30/2009

SPOTLIGHT: Bullying--and What Schools Do and Don’t Do About It

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet is focusing on bullying. A reader raised the issue by pointing to an article in The Washington Post that discussed how to pick the right school in the right district--but did not tell parents to look at anti-bullying policies. The reader also noted that discussions of school reform always focus on academics and not on safety issues. Please tell us in the comments section about how your school does--or doesn’t--deal with bullies, or email The Sheet.

At Vivian Elementary School, about 12 miles from the site of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, students spend about an hour once a week talking about bullies--and what to do when they see one.

Every child from kindergarten through sixth grade--and all of the adults in the school--learn how to identify bullying behaviors and how to stand up to a bully without inflaming the situation.

“This is the culture of our school,” said social worker Molly Lacy. “Safety is our big concern. We give the children tools so that they have the ability to problem solve most situations, but they are also comfortable asking an adult for help.”

Key to the program's success:

*The lessons don't last for a month or two. They are given for the entire school year.
*Everybody in the school--students, teachers, custodians, kitchen staff--is involved.
*Students are taught that being a bystander is not acceptable. They are expected to help victims whenever they see bullying behavior.

No program, of course, can stop all bullying. But the comprehensive strategy at Vivian in Lakewood, Co., is what experts say is the best--and probably only approach--that can reduce it.

Unfortunately, it takes dedication of staff and time. Most schools won’t give up a lot of either to focus in depth on safety issues even though they rank high among parent concerns. At a time when schools are hyper-focused on standardized test scores, academics take precedence.

Many schools don’t have counselors to implement anti-bullying programs. According to the American School Counselor Association, the national average is about 475 students to every school counselor though the recommendation is 250 to 1.

In Washington D.C., the ratio three years ago (the latest available statistics) was 1 counselor for every 729 students; in Maryland, 1 in 360; in Virginia, 1 in 289. But Illinois had one counselor for every 1172 students, and California one in 986.

Here are some important things to know:

What is bullying?

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, bullying:

*Involves repeated acts of physical, emotional, or social behavior that are intentional, controlling, and hurtful. Can include hitting, name-calling, threatening, intimidating, kicking, spreading rumors, teasing, pushing, tripping, excluding someone from a group, or destroying someone’s things.

*Is defined by a power imbalance between the bully and the target.

*Is a learned behavior, evident as early as two years of age.

*Can be direct--physical and verbal attacks. And indirect--social isolation and name calling.

How Common Is Bullying?

*It is difficult to know just how prevalent bullying really is, but the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2007 nearly a third of students ages 12 to 18 reported having been bullied during the school year. That’s up from as few as 1 in 10 students in the 1990s. Some experts say the rise may be a result of better reporting, but the subject is getting attention this year after a handful of suicides by students who had been bullied.

*JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, published an article in 2008 that said at least 160,000 students stay home from school every day because they fear being bullied.

Who bullies?

*Boys are more typically engaged in direct bullying and girls in indirect bullying, but that is not always the case.

*For girls, bullying can include spreading gossip, telling lies, betraying trust, passing notes, ignoring the victim, or excluding the victim.

*Younger teens are more likely to bully than older teens.

Where Does Bullying Happen?

Probably the most common place, researchers say, is the school playground.

Characteristics of bullies

*A bully’s power can be derived from physical size, strength, verbal skill, popularity, or gender.

*A bully is a boastful winner and a poor loser.

*Seems to derive satisfaction from other’s fears, discomfort, or pain.

*Blames others for his/her problems.

*Displays uncontrolled anger, and some researchers say that 30-40 percent of bullies are themselves depressed.

*Has a history of discipline problems and displays a pattern of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and aggressive behaviors

What are the consequences?

*Bullying interferes with learning in school and may lead to increased absenteeism and dropout rates.

*The longer bullying lasts, the harder it is to change. Bullies identified by age 8 are six times more likely to have a criminal conviction by age 24.

*Bullying children may become bullying adults and are more likely to become child and spouse abusers.

*Bullying may be linked to other delinquent, criminal and gang activities, such as shoplifting, drug abuse, and vandalism.

*A bully’s target feels tormented, helpless, and defenseless. Targets grow socially insecure and anxious with decreased self-esteem and increased depression rates, even into adulthood.


Bullying can be hard for adults to see. Direct bullying--physical or verbal attacks are often done beyond earshot of teachers--and the more indirect social isolation can go undetected.

Kids don’t like to tell on each other for various reasons--and, sometimes, when they do, adults ignore it, saying it is just part of growing up, or make matters worse by singling out the victim.

Forty-four states already have laws that ban bullying--a legacy of a series of school shootings in the late 1990s, including at Columbine where two teenagers killed 13 people and then themselves.

But the laws are largely ineffective in identifying kids who chronically bully others, the Associated Press reported, citing data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.Few have enforcement mechanisms or even require schools to gather data to monitor the problem. And the law in some states, such as in Georgia, apply only to students in grades 6-12.

Signs Your Child May Be Bullied:

*Is socially withdrawn and has few or no friends.

*Feels sad and alone, picked on or persecuted, and not liked.

*Complains frequently of illness.

*Tries to avoid going to school.

*Cries easily.

*Threatens violence to self or others.

*Displays changes in academic performance, and/or sleep patterns and/or eating habits.

What You Should Do

*Find out who is the bully and who is the victim.

*If your child is a victim, make sure he/she knows it isn’t his fault.

*Discuss ways of responding to a bully--but don’t tell them to fight.

What If your Child is A Bully?

*Be sure that your child knows that bullying is NOT acceptable behavior.
*Tell your child the penalties for bullying and be sure that you enforce them fairly and consistently.

*Help your child learn alternative ways to deal with anger and frustration.

*Teach and reward more appropriate behavior.

*Work out a way for your child to make amends for the bullying.

*Seek help or counseling if the behavior continues.


At Vivian Elementary, all students learn how to defuse situations, sometimes on their own, and sometimes by seeking adult assistance.

When appropriate, Lacy said she brings together the child identified as a bully and the children on the other end of that behavior, and help them talk it out so they can get back to their schoolwork, unafraid.

She said she notices bullying behavior at different times of year. For example, at the end of sixth grade, students are eager to move on to middle school and she sees a jump in negative behavior.

And at the beginning of the school year, kindergarteners and first graders don’t know how to be students and have to learn the rules.

Kim Jones, a teachers’ aide at Vivian who had three daughters graduate from the school, has seen the program work as a parent and as a school employee.

A key to success, she said, is making sure kids know they are responsible for helping victims.

“The person who is exhibiting the bullying behaviors is looking for power and control,” she said. “And the real power comes from strength in numbers. There can be no bystanders. We teach them that together they have more power than the bully does.”

By Valerie Strauss  | September 30, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Bullying, Parents  | Tags:  Bullying  
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The loosey-goosey definition is a real classic: "behavior that are intentional, controlling, and hurtful". Or how about this: "...spreading rumors, ...excluding someone from a group...". And this one: "defined by a power imbalance between the bully and the target". If someone gets their knickers in a twist, getting payback would be a very simple matter. This BS has no place in school policy.

Posted by: GladToBeInVA1 | September 30, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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