April 2006 • Volume 9 • Number 4 • Pages 30-31
The Mark of Leadership
Targeting the School Bully
I will never forget the powerless look on her face; then pain, disappointment, and anguish seemed to erupt as the parent told her son's story of victimization and despair. Her 12-year-old son was the bully's mark.
As she spoke, I recalled being a seventh grader 43 years ago. I was the mark. I was too tall, too fat, and too ugly…at least that's what they said. I was tripped, kicked, robbed, and made to feel stupid.
Bullying is a weapon of people driven by the need for power. Bullying can be a single interaction— verbal, physical, or, emotional—but it is always crafted to cause fear and to exert power. Unfortunately, the victims often refuse to report the bullying behavior to an adult because of fear, shame, and distrust. Many become walking time bombs, creating hit lists of those who have tormented or teased them. Some even contemplate suicide.
Why Do Students Bully?
Adolescent bullies are often impulsive, easily frustrated, and less tolerant of differences to the point of being "mean-spirited." At some point in childhood, they may have been rejected and are trying to put others down just to lift themselves up. Many bullies have been bullied themselves; they have learned to be cruel.
Bullies who are not stopped continue to mark students and grow into bully parents, spouses, employers, or neighbors. Research from the Maine Project Against Bullying and others suggests that by age 24, 60% of identified bullies have criminal records, making it imperative that we develop a more therapeutic approach to the phenomenon…one with the lofty goal of prevention.
Targeting the Phenomenon
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, describes a safe school as a place "where students can learn and teachers can teach in a welcoming environment, free of intimidation and fear. It is a setting where the educational climate fosters a spirit of acceptance and care for all students; where behavior expectations are clearly communicated, consistently enforced, and fairly applied."
Our school has a zero tolerance policy, which means students can be suspended for harassing, threatening, or intimidating others. We believe that students must be held accountable for interactions with others, so we place great value on building relationships based on respect, integrity, teamwork, diversity. We use communication and personal skills to protect the school environment.
Our school's approach to bullying is systematic, well-ordered, replicable, and data-driven. Teachers and staff start the school year with professional development that embraces the "model school" concept and stresses a climate for learning. This model school concept also becomes the springboard for identifying student learning styles, personalities, and needs. Instructional needs assessments are completed for every student.
A Social Skills Program provides training for all teachers, mentoring of new teachers, and parent support. Since targeting the phenomenon requires collaboration of all stakeholders, several opportunities are arranged for parents and community members to work before and after school, on Saturdays, and even Sundays. Creating the right climate for learning becomes an ongoing process and includes activities throughout the year, such as the following:
- Open House/Meet and Greet Session for Parents and Students
- Orientation for Students
- Code of Conduct Orientation
- Adolescent Symposium for Parents and Students
- Quarterly Training for Teachers
- Monthly Principal's Coffee for Parents/Community Members
- Principal's Roundtable
- Student Recognition
- School-wide Club/Activity Program
- Volunteer/Mentor Database
- Articulation/Transition Activities for Students and Parents.
Our anti-bullying program involves all stakeholders. The principal's role is clear: provide the direction, enthusiasm, public relations, and resources for the program. All adults are expected to report all cruel or mean acts and put-downs. The "would be" bully must feel outnumbered. Our anti-bullying program is student-led. Teachers nominate students to serve on the Anti-Bullying Program Team. Students meet before school once each week to plan assemblies, field trips, and other learning opportunities.
The principal works closely with the guidance department, collecting and analyzing conference data, encouraging small group seminars to promote assertiveness, and ensuring the involvement of the school psychologists. The environmental services staff addresses climate indicators such as vandalism; the nurse can provide data on the frequency and type of incidents reported.
The guidance department designs interactive instructional units and techniques that engage students in higher-order thinking and problem solving. Web sites, interviews and focus groups are used to generate discussions about the importance of a bully-free environment. Students are exposed to concepts that include valuing personal differences including race, religion, gender, disability, ethnicity, and differences in thinking.
The principal also models the communication skills needed to restore confidence in the school and staff, ensuring all parents are kept informed of administrative actions; periodically contacting parents to monitor the mark's and victim's growth and progress; collaborating with counselors and administrators to develop a personal growth plan and community service learning opportunities for the would-be bully; and monitoring the bully's progress.
Administrators target, resolve, and document known and suspected bullying incidents. They submit monthly reports to the principal, which are also used by the school improvement team. In addition, data are shared with the PTA and other parent/ community groups.
Once an incident has been resolved, there is on-going follow up to ensure that the incident is not repeated. Counselors provide one-on-one and group counseling, allowing the victims to vent, share their feelings, and understand systems of support. Our students know that the adults in the school are resources that they can access at any time.
Parents must create a climate of human caring in the home as well. The school can help in this effort by providing training for parents on a variety of topics such as understanding adolescent growth/development, teaching social skills, helping children deal with stress, building children's self-esteem, and keeping positive communication lines open. Parents also need help communicating with their children. They can learn to listen to their children, help with challenges, communicate appropriately with school staff, and provide academic support.
If a child has experienced bullying, the parent can be trained to provide follow-up interventions at home. If a child has been the bully, the school can provide information to help parents provide appropriate discipline, support and monitoring, and interventions.
Bullying is not a middle school rite of passage; it is a weapon. It has no place in our schools. Schools must strive for a learning environment that embraces the needs of all students, teachers, and administrators. Parents are a key component of a successful anti-bullying program as well. With a school-wide defense, the bully phenomenon can become a thing of the past…but don't let your guard down. Continue to send a strong message that, "There is no place for bullying in our schools!"
Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle, by C. Giannetti and M. Sagarese. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Maine Project Against Bullying. http://lincoln.midcoast.com/~wps/against/bullying.html.
National School Safety Center. www.nssc1.org/mission.htm. 141 Duesenberg Drive, Suite 11, Westlake Village, California, 91362. Phone: 805-3373-9977.
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. www.safeyouth.org.
School Mediation Associates. www.schoolmediation.com.
A Teenager's Guide to Fitting In, Getting Involved, Find Yourself. www.ncfy.com/expreng.pdf
Marian White-Hood is principal at Ernest E. Just Middle School in Prince George's County, Maryland.
Copyright © 2006 by National Middle School Association