November 2006 • Volume 38 • Number 2 • Pages 29-36
Counselor Roles in Dealing With Bullies and Their LGBT Victims
|* This We Believe Characteristics|
* Denotes the corresponding characteristics from NMSA's position paper, This We Believe, for this article.
- An inviting, supportive, and safe environment
- An adult advocate for every student
- School-initiated family and community partnerships
- School-wide efforts and policies that foster health, wellness, and safety
- Multifaceted guidance and support services
Sandra L. Pollock
It started out with people calling me names, and then it got worse. They threw things at me, they vandalized my house, and they sang nasty songs about me in school hallways and classrooms. It got so bad that I felt like I was in danger physically.
—Erika Harold, Miss America 2003
(Kass, Evans, & Shah, 2003, p. 7)
Bullying is a pervasive problem in the United States, and no one is immune. Erika Harold survived bullying, but it left an indelible mark. Bullying is a type of aggression that consists of behaviors intended to cause harm to another person or group of people (Espelage, 2002). These actions may be direct, such as teasing, taunting, and hitting, or indirect, such as social isolation or exclusion (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1998). In 1998 a nationwide study done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development involving 15,686 children in grades six through 10 showed that 30% of young people were bullying victims, perpetrators, or both. These statistics cross gender lines and socioeconomic status (Kass, Evans, & Shah, 2003). In 2000, a study of 558 middle school students living in the Midwest showed more than 80% of them reporting bullying behaviors within the previous 30 days. (Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000).
|Codes of conduct for creating and maintaining safe schools need to be discussed by and with students|
Bullying can predict future criminal activity. Studies show that 60% of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by age 24, as compared to 23% of boys not considered bullies. Of boys considered to be bullies, 40% would have three or more convictions by age 24 [italics added], as opposed to 10% of their non-bully counterparts (Kass, Evans, & Shah, 2003). Secret Service agents, called in to develop profiles of the Columbine and other school shooters, found that most of them had been humiliated and harassed in school for long periods of time before choosing to attack their perceived perpetrators. Studies show that victims of bullying are at high risk for low self-esteem, depression, and suicide (Kass et al., 2003).
Raising a Bully
Bullying is a widespread problem in schools. Research offers many possible explanations for this. School violence is influenced by parenting practices, temperamental factors, peer culture, and societal reinforcement of violence through the media and sports (Griffiths, 1995). The predominant theory is that bullying is a learned behavior. Bullies often come from home environments where physical punishment is used and children are taught to strike out physically as a way to solve problems. Parental involvement and warmth are often lacking. These children have little empathy for their victims and often find ways to defend their actions by saying they were provoked (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1998). In the study of 558 middle school students by Espelage and associates (2000), bullying behaviors were positively correlated with families where physical discipline was used, adult supervision was lacking, negative peer influence was present, and neighborhoods were considered unsafe. Conversely, the likelihood of bullying was significantly reduced for students who spent time with adults who modeled nonviolent strategies for conflict resolution. This suggests the substantial influence adult (parent, teacher, school counselor) behavior can play in a child's life.
In children's literature the lessons of counterattack and revenge are frequently the prescription for coping and problem resolution (Oliver & Young, 1994). In The revenge of the incredible Dr. Rancid and his youthful assistant, Jeffrey (Conford, 1980), the main character, eleven-year-old Jeffrey, is bullied by classmate Dewey. Dewey threatens Jeffrey and calls him demeaning names daily. There is also a "slam book" in class which is passed around so that girls may write insults about boys in their class. In today's classrooms, this is often accomplished via Web sites where students write anonymous opinions of each other. Jeffrey frequently laments to the reader his feelings of shame and physical distress (stomach pain and loss of appetite). He is unable to confide in anyone and even pretends to be sick to avoid school and bullying. He copes through his creative writing in which he describes in detail killing Dewey with a pulverization gun. Ultimately, Jeffrey becomes a "hero" in school and at home—by physically fighting Dewey. While he technically loses the fight and suffers physical wounds, the fight wins him friends, popularity, and, especially, the attention of the girl he likes. Literature reflects the values of our culture and, unfortunately, fighting is often seen as the "cure" to bullying. The message is that fighting, even to the point of sustaining injuries, is the way to end bullying.
Another caution to parents is that they be attuned to the television shows and movies their children watch, as modeling is a powerful way that children learn social behavior. One of today's most popular children's shows is Rugrats. It is important to note that one of the key characters is Angelica, a spoiled bully who manipulates and threatens the younger children to get her own way (Rugrats history, 2005). Younger children might be tempted to emulate her in their own dealings with others.
Bullying as a Coping Skill
Many studies support the hypothesis that middle school students, in particular, need to "fit in." The transition from elementary school to middle school can be particularly stressful for children. These students are trying to define their place in this new environment. As it can actually enhance their within-group and popularity status, bullying may be one of the coping skills used (Espelage, 2002).
It is important to mention girls' aggressive behavior and bullying. This is not a topic widely reviewed in the literature, as bullying is still considered to be a boys' issue. Galen and Underwood (1997) reviewed current literature and conducted a study to investigate this phenomenon. The results confirmed that girls view socially aggressive behavior to be just as hurtful as physically aggressive behavior. Socially aggressive behavior (indirect bullying) may be more salient with girls than boys, but it is just as harmful. It may be that girls are more sensitive to subtler forms of aggression, as in facial expressions and emotional games.
Research done in the United Kingdom by Johnson and Lewis (1999) with more than 200 grade 10 girls and boys found that bullies have relatively positive self-perceptions. They exhibited average to good self-esteem and social competence and thought of themselves as likeable and fairly popular. Clearly, this would reinforce the use of bullying as a tactic to enhance social standing among peers. While the public and many professionals might assume that bullies suffer from lower self-esteem than their counterparts, most of the young people exhibiting bullying behavior in this study viewed themselves as having good social competence and self-esteem. They did, however, perceive themselves as below average scholastically. Research indicates that a combination of these factors—child-rearing influences, child characteristics, and environmental factors among them—merge to create a child who acts out by bullying (Ross, 1996).
Victims of Bullying
There may be reasons certain youth are targeted as victims. Studies show that children with low positive self-regard are more likely to be victimized by bullies. A sense of social failure and inadequacy among peers leads to an increase in victimization over time. Indeed, low self-regard—especially self-perceived low social competence—contributes significantly to the victimization by bullies. There is also the possibility that these children add to their victimization by exhibiting self-deprecating behaviors, not asserting themselves, and seeking out fellow students who confirm their own sense of low self-regard (Egan & Perry, 1998). A commonly held belief about bullying victims is that they may be overprotected by their mothers. The rationale is that there are deficits in early social experience if children are sheltered from play and social contacts. They do not always behave appropriately with their peers, cry easily, and expect adults to intervene whenever conflicts arise. Because of this, they may more easily become targets of bullying and teasing by other children (Ross, 1996).
Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Bullying
One factor not discussed widely in the literature on bullying is the issue of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) youth—the invisible minority. In a survey done by the National Mental Health Association, 78% of teenagers surveyed reported that students who are gay or thought to be gay are teased or bullied. Almost all teenagers surveyed (93%) reported hearing the words "fag" or "homo" occasionally, while half reported hearing these homophobic slurs daily (Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 2003). It is estimated that "approximately 3,000,000 youth between 10 and 20 years of age are either predominantly or exclusively homosexual" (Herring & Furgerson, 2000, p. 2). This represents a significant number of middle and high school students. Middle school students are desperately trying to fit in with their peers. Adolescents have many issues surrounding their emerging identities, sexual drives, and sexual orientation. Too often, sexuality and sexual orientation are forbidden topics in school (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). To ignore such significant aspects of adolescents' development does a great disservice to them. Identity development is a major task of adolescents ages 13 to 18. It is a time teenagers are involved in reality testing of themselves and the world, as they begin to define themselves (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). School is generally the predominant setting for adolescents' socialization. Therefore, it is an important component of successful completion of this developmental task. If we know that adolescence can be a confusing and conflicted time with regard to sexuality anyway, what happens when the teenager's sense of himself or herself does not fit the "norm" of typical sexual identity? In a world where heterosexuality is consistently and positively reinforced, it is unavoidable that some type of identity conflict will occur for youth who believe they are LGBT (Marinoble, 1998).
There is a relationship between bullying or harassment and LGBT youth. Recent research—acknowledging that school is often the primary site for teaching masculinities, femininities, and sexualities—has exposed a relationship between gender-based and sexualized forms of violence and harassment in school (Renold, 2002). It is theorized by Renold (2002) that heterosexism—the belief that heterosexuality is superior to other forms of sexuality—is the foundation for this behavior. She posits that there is a need for children to maintain the paradigm of dominant masculinity and submissive femininity. Boys and girls who do not invest in or mirror these stereotypes are more prone to bullying such as social exclusion, verbal abuse, ridicule, and humiliation (Renold, 2002). Indeed, Trotter (1999) reported that, according to her research, "Professionals are reluctant to discuss issues of sexuality and rarely consider this subject, despite evidence of habitual anti-gay innuendo and harassment" (p. 955).
Renold (2002) studied homophobia and heterosexism among primary school children. She conducted exploratory unstructured group interviews with 59 children (10 and 11 years old) over the course of a year. She wanted to give voice to the children's perspective and viewed them as knowledgeable and active subjects in this experience. Renold (2002) saw sexual harassment—defined as unwanted physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature—as the primary way children maintain the dominant heterosexual culture. Specific examples of verbal abuse by boys were girls being called "bitch," "slut," "tart," "big tits," and "period bag." This would be done to unsettle and intimidate them and, ultimately, to reinstate heterosexual dominance. Physical sexual harassment was also reported by these 10- and 11-year-old girls. This was another means of boys reasserting their position of power in social circumstances and consisted of attacks such as pulling bras and punching girls in the chest. For boys who did not demonstrate stereotypically masculine practices, there was homophobic teasing, labeling, and name-calling (e.g., being called "gay"). By age 11, these children have already learned that to be different from the dominant culture in any way can be dangerous. This was truly a one-of-a-kind study and, as a result of her work and public campaigning, there have been shifts in the United Kingdom's education policies and dealings with homophobic bullying (Renold, 2002).
Same-sex orientation is a significant risk factor for suicide, depression, and alcohol abuse. In Australia a study was conducted to examine attitudes toward homosexual adolescent suicide. About 1,400 Australians completed a series of questionnaires, including The Suicide Attitude Vignette Experience (Stillion, McDowell, & Shamblin, 1984). Results showed that the suicide of a gay teen was seen as significantly more justified, acceptable, necessary [italics added], and psychologically healthy than that of a straight teen. In Australia suicide is recognized as an accepted choice for youth who suspect they may be homosexual (Molloy, McLaren, & McLachlan, 2003). Obviously, LGBT youth are especially vulnerable to the power of negative sanctions they receive covertly and openly from their world. When one considers the need for youth to fit in and the deleterious effects of regular bullying, it is no surprise to learn that American studies of gay and lesbian youth have reported that "between 48% and 76% have thought of suicide, while between 29% and 42% have attempted suicide" (Russell & Joyner, 2001, p. 1276). Suicide is actually the number one cause of death in American gay and lesbian teenagers (Marinoble, 1998). Those working with adolescents must consider the role that victimization plays in suicide risk for LGBT youth.
Most LGBT students live in a homophobic society; many believe they are sick, evil, and disgusting. These self-perceptions can lead to depression, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and self-hatred. Emotional problems can cause the student to drop out of school, abuse substances, or commit suicide (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). Being exposed to negative stereotypes presents unique challenges to LGBT youth (Cigna Behavioral Health, 2004). LGBT youth are the only minority in our country that are "raised in the enemy's camp;" that is, they generally live in families that are not LGBT and do not automatically teach them how to live as LGBT youth. These youth are not only different at home, they are also different at school. As they navigate tumult at home and harassment at school, there may be no respite for them. One would be remiss not to explore LGBT issues since these youth are frequently the targets of bullying.
The Role of School Counselors
For an at-risk group such as LGBT youth, school can be not only uninviting, it can be dangerous (Stone, 2004). As discussed, suicide rates for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are much greater than their non-LGBT peers. Additionally, drop out rates for gay students are estimated at three times the national average (Stone, 2004). Historically, educators have been reluctant to deal openly with the issue of school violence and, particularly, its connection to LGBT youth. Bullying is considered to be a worldwide problem, yet most school psychologists report they are poorly prepared to deal with this issue (Griffiths, 1995). In addition, school counselors have often completely ignored the issue of sexual orientation of their students due, in part, to their own homophobic beliefs or fears of what parents may say (Herring & Furgerson, 2000; Marinoble, 1998). Both bullying and being an "invisible minority school population" add risk to the lives of LGBT youth (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). Trotter (1999) asserted that a major problem with LGBT bullying is professionals' reluctance to discuss issues of sexuality, despite the evidence of anti-gay harassment. Remaining invisible may seem like the only viable survival tool for these youth.
Certainly, school counselors are flooded with responsibilities and may feel overwhelmed to meet all their students' needs. However, providing a safe, respectful school climate is essential for learning and is one of the goals of No Child Left Behind (Stone, 2004). The school counselor is in an ideal position to address the issues of bullying and homophobia in schools. Herring & Furgerson (2000) identified eight issues surrounding sexual orientation that they believe school counselors can and should be aware of:
- Misunderstanding & misinformation—Homophobia (the irrational fear of LGBT people) and institutional discrimination are two issues school counselors need to recognize. Often, LGBT people are not offered counseling, as all students are assumed to be heterosexual.
- Invisibility—Often overlooked by the counseling profession and fearful of abandonment and abuse, LGBT youth may choose to remain isolated and silent as a population.
- Identity development—Although this is a task for all adolescents, this may be especially difficult for youth also struggling with questions about their sexual identity that they dare not ask.
- Lack of support systems—Isolation is an issue for all minority groups, but LGBT adolescents fear expulsion from school, their social circles, and, ultimately, their families.
- Family problems—These range from fears of alienation to violence and abandonment.
- Violence—Many youth suffer some form of violence due to their sexual orientation. At the very least, they may be harassed or discriminated against.
- Sexual abuse—While this is a concern for all youth, for sexually abused LGBT students, the issues of guilt, helplessness, and shame may be compounded by their struggles with sexual identity.
- Sexually transmitted diseases—this is more of a concern for high school students, especially for young males. However, middle school counselors should not rule out the possibility that their students may be sexually active.
Initially, school counselors need to practice self-awareness and challenge and confront their own heterosexism (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). They can educate themselves to the facts about LGBT people. Often, LGBT youth will keep their orientation a secret to avoid harassment and physical abuse by peers and family members (Cigna Behavioral Health, 2004). School counselors need to see their students as whole people. They need to be sensitive to sexual orientation issues and supportive of a student's decision whether or not to "come out." Fears of abuse and abandonment are real. School counselors can also help break the invisibility of this minority by asking open-ended questions and by not automatically assuming a student is heterosexual (Herring & Furgerson, 2000). If the adult brings up the issue of sexual orientation, then the student may be more likely to feel it is a safe topic to discuss.
School counselors may facilitate training sessions for faculty, staff, parents, and students for the purpose of improving awareness and education about heterosexism, homophobia, and the dangers of bullying. They can run support groups for LGBT students. When part of a comprehensive developmental school counseling program, counselors are obligated to advocate for and serve the special concerns of their students. With the LGBT population, this may involve raising the consciousness of school administrators and providing them with statistics and information about the dangers of ignoring this problem. School counselors can influence and advise principals and policymaking committees to establish and enforce policies forbidding homophobic discrimination (Marinoble, 1998). Indeed, all of these actions are part of the ethical guidelines regarding diversity, according to the American School Counseling Association (2004). School counselors should refer to this resource as a guide for their treatment of LGBT students. Another excellent resource for all counselors is the Association for Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Issues in Counseling, which is a division of the American Counseling Association. This can help counselors and those in adjunctive helping professions find common ground and support in working with LGBT clients (Association for Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Issues in Counseling, 2004).
Identifying, Preventing, and Intervening With Bullying
Research has identified the need for schools to develop systematic, comprehensive, and proactive polices and practices for dealing with bullying and school violence (Griffiths, 1995). We know that simply advising students to "stand up for themselves," expecting them to mediate their own harassment, and proclaiming "zero-tolerance" does not work (Kass, Evans, & Shah, 2003). Bullying is a matter of power and control, and appropriate adult intervention is necessary. The first step is assessing the magnitude and type of bullying that is occurring in your school. This should collaboratively involve administrators, school counselors, teachers, personnel outside of the school, and the students. Assessment methods can include structured and unstructured observations, interviews, teacher ratings, and self-reports. There are also a variety of sociometric measures including the Bullying-Behaviour Scale (BBC), the Self-Perception Profile for Children (SPPC), Oleweus's Bully/Victim Questionnaire (OBVQ), the Peer Beliefs Inventory (PBI), the Peer Nomination Inventory (PNI), the Peer Relations Questionnaire (PRQ), the Peer-Victimisation Scale (PVS), and the Social Experience Questionnaire (SEQ). For the most accurate information, these tools should be employed over a long period of time by personnel adequately and frequently trained (Crothers & Levinson, 2004). It is crucial that school administrators, counselors, and teachers remain open-minded to the possible existence of bullying in their institution and the additional effects of sexual identity on such behaviors.
Fighting does not eradicate bullying; it only serves to model using physical aggression to handle differences. This actually gives credibility to the bullying behavior (Ross, 1996). Bibliotherapy can offer a powerful opportunity to teach children lessons and coping skills about bullying. Providing children books of therapeutic benefit is an excellent idea, but adults need to be aware of the messages being portrayed. There need to be options that offer empathy and healthy conflict resolution. Munson's (2000) children's book Enemy Pie is an excellent example of effective bibliotherapy. When the main character meets "enemy #1" in his new neighbor, his father admits his own experiences with bullies and comes up with a creative way for his son to befriend "the enemy." In the end, all three—father, son, and new friend—celebrate by sharing the father's delicious homemade pie.
An excellent example of bullying behaviors and the psychological warfare among teen girls is portrayed in the television movie Odd Girl Out. This movie is based on the national best-seller by Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out (2005). The television program offers an opportunity to learn about indirect bullying, its insidious consequences, and possible solutions. It can serve as a springboard for parents or counselors to initiate conversations with middle school girls about bullying behavior.
"While eliminating all bullying may be unrealistic, research shows that as much as half of all bullying can be prevented" (Kass, Evans, & Shah, 2003, p. 13). Three programs that have proven to be effective are: The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT), and The Incredible Years (Figure 1). The common denominator in these three programs is that they start with enlightening and educating school personnel (principal, teachers, counselors, non-academic staff) and parents first. Kass, Evans, and Shah (2003) stated that "to reach the children, you also have to reach their parents" (p. 15).
Contact Information for Bullying Programs
For information on these bullying programs, go to the following Web sites:
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: http://www.clemson.edu/olweus.content.html
Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT): http://www.oslc.org/projects.html
The Incredible Years: http://www.incredibleyears.com
The Office of Educational Research and Improvement's brochure "What should parents and teachers know about bullying?" provides a good synopsis of bullying, its myths and facts, as well as describing intervention programs. The goal of bully proofing any school is to "change the balance of power away from the issue of fear to the issue of positive regard and respect for all students and individuals in the school" (Garrity, Jens, Porter, Sager, & Short-Camilli, 1994, p. 3).
Ross (1996) outlined clear and specific interventions for preventing and reducing bullying in schools. First and foremost, schools must have their own code of conduct clearly spelling out rules and regulations so that all school personnel can work together safely and productively. Schools must set up the norm of being a "telling school," making it "every student's responsibility to report students who engage in activities that harm others or damage property, that is, antisocial activities that in most cases in adults would be regarded as criminal behavior" (Ross, 1996, p. 100). A school's code of conduct must be communicated repeatedly and clearly to all school personnel, students, and parents; it must be enforced consistently and unequivocally. Once the code is enacted, a formal anti-bullying campaign can be instituted. This process takes open-mindedness (an admission that bullying is an issue at the school), time, and planning. It is a collaborative effort of all school administration and personnel, parents, and students (Ross, 1996).
There is greater need for the study of bullying in children and its causes, especially when the resulting impact on future criminal activity is considered. The primary difficulty would be the fact that one must rely partially on children's interviews for accurate information and perceptions. One must consider the possibility that language and understanding may vary for children within the same age range. There needs to be more research into the links between children considered to be non-stereotypical and bullying behavior. The research indicates that effective solutions to bullying involve all the adults in children's lives at home and in school. They must also include self-esteem enhancement and empowering children to act within their moral values, even if it means going against the "popular" culture. There must be a commitment of time and money by those who touch children's lives as parents, teachers, and mentors. When considering the far-reaching and lifelong effects of bullying on young people, this is an essential investment. In light of the amount of school violence and youth suicide we have seen over the last 10 years and continue to see, this is a significant issue warranting extensive study.
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Sandra L. Pollock is a doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. E-mail: San8888@aol.com
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