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Your Bullying Prevention Approach May Not Be Working: Part 2

EducationWorld is pleased to present Part 2 of this summary article based on Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere) by Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D. In the book, Willard combines her background in teaching “at risk” youth, law and digital safety to offer schools solid guidance on proactive and positive strategies for addressing bullying and harassment in the digital age. Find more information about the book and an associated workshop/virtual presentation at Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. For a limited time, get a signed copy of the book, plus additional resources, at a discounted price. Also, see Willard's new booklet for parents and other adults, Your Bullied Child or Teen: A Parent Empowerment Guide.

An EducationWorld columnist on Internet safety, she is the author of additional books including Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress; Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility; and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Your Child Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly.

Don’t miss Part 1 of this article, which addresses the litigation and regulatory challenges associated with bullying and cyberbullying. And be sure to check out EducationWorld’s library of bullying prevention resources.

Addressing the Challenges

Schools are generally complying with state bullying prevention statutes and following common bullying prevention guidelines. School staff think what they are doing is effective. The problem is that the 20th-century “adult-control” approach to bullying prevention, that includes rules against bullying, increased supervision, telling students to tell an adult, and punishing the “bully,” will never be effective.

Most bullying is motivated by a desire to achieve social dominance among peers. The hurtful acts generally occur outside of adult presence. We know that the “Just say no” messages did not reduce drug abuse. Why should we think students will be responsive to adult-dictated rules like “Don’t bully others?” Telling students to “tell an adult” if they are bullied isn’t going to be effective when they believe that telling an adult could cause serious damage to their reputation and could also lead to retaliation.

This adult-control approach will not work to address cyberbullying. Schools aren’t making rules for Web sites and apps, school staff are not present in youth digital environments, students far more often fail to report digital abuse, and punishment can lead to anonymous, widespread digital retaliation involving participants outside of the authority of the school.

Given all of this, what can schools do to reduce bullying and harassment and limit its harmful effects--and reduce the risks of litigation or an agency enforcement action?

Moving Forward

Clearly, U.S. schools must prepare students with the academic insights and skills necessary for success in work and life in the 21st century. But they also must ensure that students gain responsible social relationship skills. These social competencies are equally important for success in work and life. By focusing on such social competencies, academic performance also improves.

These action steps are recommended:

  • Place a high priority on addressing these issues through dedicated staffing at the district and school level, with broad-based committees that include school, student, parent and community representatives.
  • Measure what is happening locally to be able to assess the local concerns and evaluate progress. Use approaches that are research-based and have a likelihood of success.
  • Review all policies and practices including school security, mental health plan, disciplinary policies and incident reporting and tracking.
  • Focus on the school-wide positive management of student behavior and implement a comprehensive approach to increase students’ social, emotional and cultural competencies.
  • Engage students in leadership roles to provide insight and recommendations and to implement student-led programs and activities.
  • Specifically address the concerns of those students who are more typically targeted through an assessment of school practices, greater involvement of those students in planning, and diversity support groups. Also address personal relationship issues, bullying associated with athletics and groups, and workplace bullying.
  • Shift from a punitive responses to an approach that addresses the challenges faced by all students involved and holds those students being hurtful accountable in a manner that remedies the harm and stops the continuation of the problem.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of every school intervention.

It is also essential that school administrators have an accurate understanding of the legal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the legal ramifications of bullying based on protected class status under federal and state civil rights laws, and free speech issues related to the restriction of disparaging speech on campus and responding to hurtful off-campus speech directed at students or staff.

Read Part 1 of this article.

Related resource

Bullying and Liability: What Administrators Should Know


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