Advice for Administrators
Bullying remains a concerning and unacceptable problem that impacts approximately 20-30% of any typical school’s student population. This October, schools across the nation are hosting educational events to mark Bullying Prevention Month. These events typically include assemblies, staff development and school-wide campaigns that raise the awareness about the problems of bullying and seek to reduce bullying behaviors among students.
Now is a good time to review your bullying prevention policy.
Too many schools lag behind in writing and implementing a clear bullying prevention policy. A clearly-written and comprehensive policy is an important part of your bullying prevention and intervention efforts. Your policy should:
- define bullying and cyberbullying and the unacceptable behaviors associated with them
- list the consequences for students who engage in those behaviors
- explain the internal investigation process for reported incidences of bullying and
- outline the prevention and intervention programs available to students who are bullied AND to those who bully others.
When crafting your policy, do some additional research.
Twenty years ago, the state of Georgia passed the country’s first bullying prevention state law. By March 2015, there were bullying prevention laws on the books in every state. New Jersey has what is widely considered to be the country’s most comprehensive legislation. The NJ law stipulates that every school district has a designated and trained bullying prevention coordinator. Although this is not a requirement in every state, it is a good way to ensure that attention to bullying prevention remains a priority. You can learn more about each state’s bullying prevention legislation at www.stopbullying.gov which includes a state-by-state listing of laws, policies and regulations.
It’s a good idea to involve your school climate committee (or similar group) to assist with the evaluation of your current policy. Use this checklist as a helpful evaluation tool. Don’t forget to get legal advice as you normally would where policies are concerned. You may need approval from the board or governing body for proposed changes. Keep in mind the ways that technology is influencing bullying behaviors and be sure your policy’s language is inclusive of cyberbullying as well. The most reliable and up-to-date information on cyberbullying prevention can be found at the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Consider this: it’s not necessarily the case that stricter policies will yield better results.
Recent research reviewed by a panel of experts of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has questioned the effectiveness of “zero tolerance” disciplinary practices. These practices often ignore broader social contexts, and the critical issues of intent and understanding based on a child’s age and cognitive development. Zero tolerance policies can be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In using a one-size-fits all punitive approach, schools miss the opportunity to educate the students involved in incidents as well as the wider school community. Such policies might also decrease the reporting of bullying behaviors (and associated pre-bullying behaviors), because the consequences for doing so are high. I recommend that you consider a more nuanced approach that includes appropriate consequences for bullying behavior, support for targeted students, and educational interventions for offending students.
Updating your policy is only a first step. Implement educational programming to prevent bullying before it starts.
As an administrator, you can ensure that effective prevention programming is prioritized in your school or district. The best programs involve students and staff in creating a culture of kindness: a caring school community that is physically and emotionally safe for all. It’s especially important that students and staff receive diversity training that emphasizes the dignity of individual students and the importance of empathy, kindness, and respect. Students who learn “upstander” skills will be more prepared and confident to interrupt bullying scenarios and to support targets. See this free resource from Teaching Tolerance which explores upstander skills. Research suggests that character education, social-emotional learning and restorative practices, combined with targeted interventions with “at-risk” youth, may lead to a more positive school climate.  And positive school climate has been positively correlated to student achievement, which is an additional motivation to focus on climate.
In short, now is a good time to review and update your bullying policy, and to focus on bullying prevention and school climate. In doing so, you will be one step closer to a bullying-free school.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like 10 Ways to Sustain Your Bullying Prevention Month Efforts Through the School Year.
Christa M. Tinari, MA is co-author of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying. She serves as the Senior Instructional Content Developer at The Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning Program at The Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, Emory University.