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Bullying Prevention: Nancy Willard 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 Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., shared regarding best practices. See how other experts answered similar questions. Also, don’t miss EducationWorld's additional resources that address school-based bullying.

Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., is the 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 also is the author of several additional books including Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress.

Most 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?

Most of these laws have been in place since the mid-2000s. Based on evidence from an ongoing survey conducted by U.S. Department of Justice, there has been no significant reduction in student bullying from this time. These statutes promoted a 20th-century approach to preventing bullying that includes rules against bullying, telling students to report, and punishing the one who was hurtful.

We know “Just say no” rules against drug abuse did not work. Why should we think rules against bullying will be effective? The majority of students do not report bullying to adults, because the majority of students think doing so will only make things worse. Unfortunately, the research evidence supports students’ perspectives.

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

The worst new feature of these laws is a requirement for schools to publicly report bullying incidents. The “black mark” schools receive from such reports acts as a disincentive to encourage students to report and to characterize hurtful incidents as bullying. In New Jersey, a state with this requirement, 58% of the schools reported zero to one bullying incident in 2012-2013. It is ridiculous to believe that this is accurate.

There are actually no comprehensive, evidence-based best practices for bullying prevention. Unfortunately, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has no documentation of effectiveness here in the U.S. A recent three-year, broad-based, well-funded implementation of this program in Pennsylvania had “no positive effects” in reducing bullying in the elementary or middle schools.

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?

There is new research that supports the understanding that what is needed is not a “program,” but a comprehensive framework for a wide range of activities that will support a more positive school climate and the effective resolution of hurtful incidents. Three key actions are essential: ongoing local measurement, significantly increased student leadership, and restorative interventions that help to address the challenges of all parties.

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?

In December 2012, the Second Circuit upheld a $1M verdict against a school district for racial harassment that had continued over three years. The school appeared to be doing everything required under most statutes. The court said that the school should have recognized that its responses were ineffective and that it only made half-hearted efforts to address the “culture of bias” that was fueling the harassment.

The biggest mistakes schools are making is (1) thinking that if they tell students to report, they will and (2) intervening in bullying situations by punishing “the bully.” Bullying will never be effectively addressed by focusing on bullying incidents alone—making rules against bullying and punishing “the bully.” Bullying is grounded in the quality of interpersonal relationships. To reduce bullying and to limit its harmful effects, we need to focus on the quality of relationships within the school community, fully engaging students in leadership roles, helping students gain social-emotional competencies, and resolving hurtful incidents in a restorative manner that builds the strengths of all parties involved. Schools that do this will see decreased bullying and increased happiness.


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