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Student Leadership in Bullying Prevention

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., author of Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere), which offers schools guidance on proactive and positive strategies for addressing bullying and harassment in the digital age. For a limited time, get a signed copy of the book, plus additional resources, at a discounted price. For more information--including a new booklet for parents and other adults, Your Bullied Child or Teen: A Parent Empowerment Guide--see Embrace Civility in the Digital Age.

An EducationWorld columnist on the topic of Internet safety, Willard is the author of several additional books including Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress.

The individuals who have the greatest insight into the quality of your school’s climate, the current challenges related to bullying, and the effectiveness of school efforts in reducing such hurtful behavior are walking around schools wearing jeans, with smart phones in their hands or pockets.student leadership bullying prevention

In March 2012, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice entered into a consent decree with the Anoka Hennepin School District in Minnesota to resolve a lawsuit against the district based on gender-based harassment. The importance of student leadership was emphasized in the press release announcing this decree:

The Departments are especially grateful to the courageous students who came forward in this case and provided invaluable insights that strengthened the Decree. It explicitly provides opportunities for student participation in the District’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts.1

Among requirements set forth in this consent decree were a number of student leadership activities, including:

  • Provide for other opportunities for meaningful student involvement and input into the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts.
  • Establish student leadership programs and diversity support groups in middle and high schools to address harassment.
  • Hold focus group meetings between high level administrators and typically targeted students to discuss harassment and school climate.

Why is student leadership and involvement so vitally important? One of the reasons it may be challenging for schools to realize changes are necessary is that staff perceives what they are doing is effective. One study found:

  • While 97% of school staff said they would intervene if they saw bullying, 43% of middle school students and 54% of high school students reported they had seen adults at school watching bullying and doing nothing.
  • While 87% of school staff think they have effective strategies for handling bullying, 58% of middle and 66% of high school students believe adults at school are not doing enough to stop or prevent bullying.
  • While only 7% of school staff think school staff make things worse when they intervene, 61% of middle school students and 59% of high school students believe that teachers who try to stop bullying only make it worse.2

The current focus in bullying prevention has been on adults taking responsibility for addressing the problem. Far too frequently, this adult-centric mindset has led to the exclusion of young people from participation. Envision these two planning scenarios:

Scenario 1:

The school has conducted an annual school climate/bullying survey. The administrative team reviews the data and then has a meeting with school staff to discuss the issues that were raised and develop proposed strategies to address the identified concerns.

Scenario 2:

The school has conducted an annual school climate/bullying survey of staff and students. The administrative team then shares this data with the Student Leadership Team and engages them in a collaborative focus group session to elicit additional student perceptions and insight related to this data and their recommendations on ways the school could be more effective. Representatives from the Student Leadership Team make a presentation of these findings and recommendations to the school staff and to the other students.

Three Questions:

  1. Which approach is most likely to yield the best insight into what is working effectively--or not--to support positive school climate and limit hurtful incidents in your school?
  2. Which approach is most likely to effectively influence any necessary positive change in staff behavior?
  3. Which approach will most likely encourage students to view themselves as active partners in creating a positive school climate?


  2. Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L. & O'Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36(3), 361-382.

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