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Bullying Prevention: Jessie Klein on Best Practices

EducationWorld asked a number of authors, college professors and other experts for their take on bullying prevention and whether schools, states and the country are getting it right--or wrong. Below is what professor and author Jessie Klein shared regarding best practices. See how other experts answered similar questions. Also, don't miss EducationWorld's additional resources that address school-based bullying.

By Jessie Klein, Ph.D., MSW, M.Ed. 

Jessie Klein is Associate Professor of Sociology/Criminal Justice at Adelphi University and the author of THE BULLY SOCIETY: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools (NYU Press, 2012).

bully society jessie kleinMost states now have some form of anti-bullying law that requires K-12 schools to put in place various policies and practices to prevent and respond to student bullying. Do you think these laws are making a difference? If they aren't currently, could they, or will they?

Unfortunately, I don't think the anti-bullying laws are doing much good. Most of the policies schools implement are to fulfill their requirements--rather than to change the school community culture. Often the response is "zero tolerance," such that those who are already excluded and acting out end up suspended and more angry and resentful; a vicious cycle is common. 

If schools want to reduce bullying, they need to shift the approach. Rather than look for likely targets and bullies, they need to help students develop caring relationships with one another. This does take work in today's post-modern, text-dominant youth culture--but schools could do so much to teach students to be more empathetic and compassionate towards one another. This would reduce or even eliminate bullying behaviors.  

What are state anti-bullying laws getting right/wrong when it comes to actual evidence-based best practices for preventing and responding to bullying?

In my research, the work that reduced bullying focused on developing more supportive communities. The Five-track method in Norway reduced bullying behaviors by 50%; it was translated into languages all over Europe. The premise is "help for the bully; help for the victim; help for the bystanders; help for the teachers; and help for the parents." Note that there is no focus on punishment; the best practices focus on creating more community and support for everyone.  

Are there things that K-12 schools have to do to successfully prevent bullying, but that can't be covered or mandated in a law?

I don't think laws are likely or able to mandate a deeper sense of community; I suppose they could mandate efforts towards creating a caring community--but most people in schools and out--no longer have a sense of what a caring community even looks like. Books such as Bowling Alone and The Lonely American document the extent of community deterioration in the U.S. and the escalating rise of social isolation. Since the 1980s, the number of people who have no one to speak to about important matters in their life--tripled.

Everyone has lost confidants--if you had three such friends in the '80s, you likely have two today. Fifty percent of our population has what has been called "marginal support" by Claude Fischer or "inadequate support." These figures are collected from the General Social Survey (1985 and 2004). As such, people do not tend to have community in their lives. We don't borrow sugar from our neighbors or invite them for dinner to be nice; today we leave them alone to be nice because we assume they are busy--and we go to the store for our supplies. 

Schools need help to create communities so that students feel responsible for one another--organically caring and ready to help each other. This is not easy in a culture that has become over-focused on self-reliance and individualism--but the alternative is what we see in schools developing at a devastating rate; it sounds alarmist--and yet it is tragically true--the alternative is mass murder among children. 

Laws aside, what are K-12 schools currently doing right/wrong when it comes to preventing and responding to bullying? What are some common mistakes that schools make?

Schools need to teach empathy. Some schools are doing this extremely well by teaching non-violent communication--a model of empathy developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Manhattan Country School, a private school dedicated to community and social justice in New York City, teaches kindergarten students to speak with related I-statements. "When you did x, I felt y. Would you z?" Students learn the model and are able to take one another aside when they are in conflict and speak to each other compassionately about their concerns. You can hear the five and six-year-olds say, "I think I need to do an 'I-statement." This is a wonderful model. 

Humanities Preparatory Academy is a public high school in New York City that has weekly, all-community town meetings. Students run the meetings, choose the issues for discussion, call on the other students to participate and write down students' ideas. Faculty help the students who run the meeting create the agenda--and they help the discussions. When the school got bigger--they broke the meetings up into "quads," such that three or four homerooms at a time would meet; and these quads would shift monthly so people could still feel connected to one another and their school. School issues related to bullying, gay-bashing, substance abuse, and the like have all been topics of discussion that students raised with one another in these settings.

I don't know for sure that the school is still doing this work--but when they were doing it, the results were amazing. Kids who were homeless, abused, and from all kinds of devastating backgrounds helped each other in myriad ways including filling out college applications. In this inner-city school, 100 percent were accepted at four-year colleges and 30 percent full scholarships to private colleges. Liz Murray, who wrote her memoir From Homeless to Harvard, was one of the many successes this school produced. There were very few fights and a tremendously strong sense of community.

There are as many ways to create community as there are schools--and research shows that each school needs to find the model that best fits it; but this is the only way to reduce/eliminate bullying behaviors. Students and school faculty need to have the space to prioritize their relationships with one another--and teaching empathy needs to be considered as essential as reading, writing and arithmetic. 


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