Nearly 2.1 million bullies are present in K-12 schools in the United States, according to data from the National School Safety Center. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that every day, 160,000 kids do not attend school for fear of being bullied. Other data indicate that nearly 71 percent of young people say that bullying is a problem at their school. And since the 2016 presidential election, the victimization in K-12 schools of children from underrepresented groups has only increased.
In a study conducted by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, approximately 90 percent of teachers said their school’s climate suffered following the election. Authors of the report cite President Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants and minorities during the campaign as a cause for this spike in bullying incidents.
While these and other bullying statistics vary slightly, many students clearly face harassment and intimidation in some form or another in the K-12 school environment. Because students have a fundamental right and a need to feel safe and able to learn at school, the institutions that educate future teachers and school leaders are looking for ways to help mitigate this pervasive problem.
Although there is no universal definition of “bullying,” Stopbullying.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), defines it as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” Bullying behavior — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can be physical, verbal, or social — is often repeated or “has the potential to be repeated over time,” according to HHS.
StopBullying.gov also defines cyberbullying as a prevalent form of bullying “that takes place using electronic technology” and that reportedly affects 30 to 48 percent of young people. This type of persecution can reach a child remotely at any hour of the day or night; it can be anonymous, distributed quickly, and difficult to trace and delete.
No matter how it is specifically defined or what form it takes, bullying can have devastating effects. According to HHS, these might include depression and anxiety, eating disorders, decreased academic achievement, drug abuse, and in some cases and for varied underlying reasons, increased risk of suicide.
Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, researches bullying, specifically focusing on translating empirical findings into prevention and intervention programming.
“We have found that simply working with children — and not the adults in schools — has led to only minimum reductions in bullying,” Espelage says. “Previously, we focused bullying prevention on changing kids’ attitudes and behaviors because most of the social-emotional learning approaches were directed toward children. Over time, however, research showed that [constructive] teacher intervention in response to bullying in the classroom or school environment made a positive difference in [preventing] the behaviors.”
In response to findings like these, some higher education institutions offer bullying-prevention training and certificate programs designed to help aspiring educators deal effectively with bullying in school and classroom environments. In addition, some legislatures have enacted laws requiring this type of training for teachers.
In New York, for example, the Dignity for All Students Act — often referred to as the Dignity Act — requires aspiring educators to have six hours of bullying-prevention training from approved providers before they can become certified as a teacher. Passed in 2010, the goal of the Dignity Act is to help ensure that New York’s public schools are safe, supportive environments free from victimization, persecution, discrimination, and the like. Several New York colleges and universities are approved providers of the training, which focuses on the social patterns of harassment, bullying, cyberbullying, and discrimination in schools and includes online and face-to-face components.
“It is important for those who will be working in schools to know about bullying, ways to recognize it, how to best prevent it, and how to intervene effectively,” explains Amanda Nickerson, PhD, a professor of counseling, school, and educational psychology in the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. Nickerson also serves as director of the University’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, which, among other programming, provides Dignity Act training.
“[Future educators need] to have opportunities to work through case scenarios and role play responses, and to get specific feedback about their [bullying prevention] skills,” Nickerson adds.
In South Carolina, Clemson University’s Institute for Family and Neighborhood Life is a provider of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP). The OBPP is a renowned, comprehensive, evidence-based bullying prevention initiative founded by Dan Olweus, PhD, an expert whose focus on bullying prevention dates back to the 1970s. Designed for use in K-12 schools, the OBPP is derived from research on reducing aggressive behavior and involves all school staff, students, parents, and the community in prevention efforts.
“Successful bullying prevention requires continuous attention and should be woven into the school environment,” says Jan Urbanski, EdD, OBPP program director and director of Safe and Humane Schools at Clemson. “The OBPP — through its focus on multiple components, the inclusion of the entire school community, and available training and resources to effectively address bullying — provides the framework for schools [and educators] to do this.”
Urbanski believes that as the North, Central, and South American home of the OBPP, Clemson University’s College of Education is in a unique position to teach aspiring educators and professionals how to prevent bullying in schools.
Nickerson agrees that colleges and universities — and schools of education — can play an important role in preparing educators to deal effectively with bullying in the school environment.
“[Schools can] include both information and specific skills training in the curriculum about managing problem behavior and understanding, preventing, and intervening with bullying, intimidation, and harassment,” she says.
Toward that end, some institutions — such as the University of San Diego and Hamline University — have begun offering bullying-prevention certificate programs for future educators. The University of San Diego offers a four-course program through its Professional and Continuing Education Department, and Hamline offers a 10-credit program via its school of education.
Making a Difference
These and related efforts notwithstanding, studies remain mixed on whether bullying prevention programs reduce actual rates of bullying.
“Overall, it appears that bullying prevention programs … are more likely to change teachers’ awareness, knowledge, and reports of increased ability to intervene than actual rates of bullying and victimization,” explains Nickerson. However, she points out that some research indicates that these programs do reduce victimization rates by as much as 17 to 28 percent and that rates of bullying are reportedly lower in states that have consistently applied anti-bullying laws and policies.
Christopher Ferguson, PhD, professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University, offers another perspective. “Programs that … understand the motives behind bullying [and] focus on reinforcing positive behavior among students while also training staff to address all aggression … may have the best promise for success,” he wrote in Time magazine.
Urbanski echoes a similar sentiment. “An effective way for schools to decrease problems associated with bullying behavior is to implement an evidence-based program to develop a positive climate that reduces the likelihood of all types of bullying,” Urbanski says. However, she also believes that in addition to bullying prevention programs and training, schools of education should help future educators focus on the basic foundations of children’s well-being and the role schools play in educating the whole child.
“The environment in a school impacts how students learn and teachers teach,” says Urbanski. “Children cannot learn if they are afraid, and so it cannot be an either-or proposition. Academics and safety are both essential components of education, and both should be included in [schools of educations’ approach to teaching] aspiring educators.”●
Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.