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Bullying Prevention: Ron Avi Astor 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 Ron Avi Astor 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 Ron Avi Astor, Ph.D.

Ron Avi Astor, Ph.D., is the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at the University of Southern California School of Social Work and Rossier School of Education. See Dr. Astor’s work in Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities: Research Report and Recommendations.

Part 1 appears below. Be sure to read Part 2 of Dr. Astor's answer.

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?

While it is good to have an anti-bullying law, it is better if the law is actually integrated into the Department of Education’s philosophy and mission on what school is all about. Most laws rely simply on punishing people, punishing districts and punishing schools for having or not having programs. The overall goal of the school from the state level should be broad to include social and emotional indicators, school climate, democratic engagement, being a good citizen. Historically, schools had these missions. 

More recently, the foci of schools has narrowed so issues like bullying are not seen as part of the central role of the school. With a wider and more historically synced vision, schools deal with all the above—not only academics. If state guidelines and laws were focused in such a way, schools could be educating on bullying prevention in addition to raising academics, because punishing schools only goes so far.

Anti-bullying laws have at least raised the consciousness of the public that bullying prevention is important to do—parents know there will be recourse if bullying happens because there is a law on the books. But it’s only one legal strategy and frankly, it’s not the best way to create change. The law may help people sue school districts in the case that something happens. That’s not all bad, and sometimes drastic change happens due to lawsuits, but lawsuits don’t give educators guidance on what they can do that will fit with their mission and how they will be assessed in the final analysis.

States would do better if they could pass laws clarifying that issues such as school climate, positive peer relationships, and being good democratic citizens are part of the mission of the school. Schools in other countries collect such data and actually these are part of the school’s evaluation.  Otherwise, you have laws that are mainly punitive, and I think eventually there is a backlash to that negative perspective.

Very few teachers or administrators had any courses on school safety violence or bullying. Many educators at the middle- and secondary-school levels just don’t see bullying prevention as a central or primary part of their role. This would all change if the schools worked bullying prevention into their main purpose or mission.  

In general, university teacher training programs and administrator programs have not done a good job in making sure all educators have detailed training or resources around issues of bullying. School social workers, counselors and psychologist programs have in recent years integrated this information and training into M.A. and Ph.D. programs. Integrating this training into all educator programs within university schools of education, psychology, and social work would also be helpful.

Part of the problem we have is that the term “bullying” covers many types of behaviors—it includes anything from looking in an unkind way at another student, to threatening a student with a gun, to—in some instances—killing someone. Because these are all really different behaviors, we are seeing that it’s not enough to focus only on one type of behavior.

For example, to be trained to treat people nicely, or preparing your staff to detect weapons, or even to respond after being threatened—we know that each of those should be handled in different ways. Prevention for those actions is also not the same. The proper training should address this wide array of behaviors both from a school climate/social-emotional development perspective and different types of behavior perspectives.

State laws need to be serious about allocating funds for educator in-service days to learn about these issues. Most states don’t have any funding surrounding educator professional development. This is a problem in the state laws. As mentioned earlier, universities are partially responsible for this. They are turning out hundreds of educators every year, many of whom haven’t even had a course or formal training on any aspect of school safety or bullying prevention.

All in all, the long-term goals should be making sure the adults in schools get this training in their university education and making funding available to train educators who are on the ground working with students. Educating is much more effective than punishing. 

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

Some studies are now showing that you don’t get much bang for your buck with evidence-based practices when they are applied without a grant to fund them or when expanded on a large scale, such as moving from a pilot school to a large urban school district. As mentioned earlier, one size does not fit all. There may be many different types of bullying programs in a given school district or state, and the program has to match the problems, needs, supports and issues raised in any specific school. Though some of these practices may appear to be effective in a research study, it does not mean they will have the same effect in schools that did not volunteer to be part of a study.

In addition, districts often adopt a program without even knowing their baselines for bullying behavior in classrooms or at the school or district levels. Some schools may not have a large bullying problem to begin with, and some schools may have bullying issues different than the ones addressed by a purchased program. Any program, even an evidence-based one, needs to clearly match the kinds of issues present in specific schools and classrooms. For example, is the school dealing with bullying surrounding gang issues and weapon use, or bullying that is mainly verbal, or bullying that is sexual in nature, or bullying that is derogatory to entire ethnic groups or LGBTQ students?

States would do much better if in addition to endorsing one-size-fits-all evidence-based practices, they also invested in school and classroom-based surveillance and monitoring systems.  In the Golden State, the California Healthy Kids Survey is administered to every school every other year.  Thus, schools have easy state-generated indicators of the types of bullying behaviors that exist in their grades or schools. They can see how they compare with other schools in their district or across the state, or they can monitor their own school over time. By collecting this localized and district-level data, educators also will be able to assess their progress in addressing bullying. 

Schools may find that some types of bullying decreased, other types increased, or that there was no change. Often this important step is ignored, because collecting and analyzing this data is complex and time-consuming for educators. If the state offers this as part of a mandated monitoring system, the school gets reports every other year and can adjust, change, alter or intensify any given program or suite of programs.  The countries with the best school safety programs and reductions have some kind of monitoring system at the school site level for every school in their territory.

Also, it is important to recognize that an evidence-based practice could be something that worked in Norway, but doesn’t necessarily work well in Los Angeles or San Diego—or even in two schools next to each other. Something may have worked in Harlem, but needs to be seriously adjusted in Chicago or Detroit. What state laws are missing when they focus solely on evidence-based practices is the automatic collection and active use of local, real data from real kids and real teachers on an ongoing basis.

Read Part 2 of Dr. Astor's answer.

Sources for ideas discussed:

Astor, R.A., Creating the schools we want for our children. (2013, December). Education Week.

Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence (2013): December 2012 Connecticut School Shooting Position Statement. Journal of School Violence, 12(2), 119-133.

Astor, R.A., Guerra, N., & Van Acker, R. (2010). How can we improve school safety research? Educational Researcher, 39, 69-78.

Astor, R.A., Benbenishty, R. & Estrada, J. (2009). School violence and theoretically atypical schools: The principal’s centrality in orchestrating safe schools. American Educational Research Journal, 46(2), 423-461.

Benbenishty, R., & Astor, R. A. (2007). Monitoring indicators of children’s victimization in school: Linking national-, regional-, and site-level indicators. Social Indicators Research. 84(3), 333-348.

Benbenishty, R. & Astor, R.A. (2005).  School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

Astor, R.A., Benbenishty, R. & Meyer, H.A. (2004). Monitoring and mapping student victimization in schools. Theory Into Practice, 43(1), 39-49.

Astor, R.A., Meyer, H. & Behre, W.J. (1999).  Unowned places and times: Maps and interviews about violence in high schools.  American Educational Research Journal, 36, 3-42.


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