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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Bullying: How Educators Can Make Schools Safer

Schools can reduce incidents by adopting a schoolwide anti-harassment policy with a social and emotional perspective.
Barbara Tannenbaum
Managing Editor at Edutopia

Almost one-quarter of all K–12 students experience some form of bullying from their peers on a regular basis. That number, reported by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in a recent publication called "Social and Emotional Learning and Bullying Prevention," is conservative. The figure jumps up to 65 percent when teenagers are the only age group surveyed. That means two-thirds of all teens experience some form of bullying or harassment within the school year, according to a 2009 survey by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network).

Bullying is not a perennial rite of passage that educators, students, and parents are stuck with. It is, say researchers for CASEL and GLSEN, a physical or psychological torment that includes verbal or physical harassment, social exclusion, and other instances of abuse that create an unsafe atmosphere at school for victims, bystanders, and sometimes perpetrators. The top two leading causes of such abuse? According to GLSEN and Harris Interactive researchers, it's not race or socioeconomic differences (although those are ranked high). Rather, it's the way students look (their perceived or actual appearance), followed by their perceived or actual sexual orientation.

How can educators reduce bullying on campus? According to Mary Utne O'Brien, CASEL's vice president of strategic initiatives and coauthor of the report, schools can reduce incidents by adopting a schoolwide anti-harassment policy with a social and emotional (SEL) perspective. While many states have laws against harassment of gay and lesbian students, O'Brien says it is even more effective when teachers employ SEL techniques in advance of any situation.

"You can't legislate this type of behavior out of existence," says O'Brien. "But you can help students -- both gay and straight -- figure out a strategy of response in advance. That empowers them. It helps them to focus on their schoolwork rather than worry they may become a victim, a snitch, or an embarrassed bystander." That, says O'Brien, is the essence of SEL -- to provide students with the tools to deal with conflicts, to become aware of their feelings, and to create a respectful atmosphere that enables learning to take place. What follows are more strategies that O'Brien highlighted from the CASEL report.

Set Clear Rules

Dig deep with students and faculty to find out if harassment takes place in your school. Both CASEL and GLSEN point out that most bullying happens under the radar. Teachers don't hear the negative comments that students make. More than half of all bullied students (57 percent) do not report such incidences, believing that educators are powerless to change the situation. But that is not true. O'Brien says the research shows that harassment does decrease when schools publicize their rules against bullying and clarify the reporting procedures.

Cover Bases

Understand that while hidden, bullying is a group phenomenon. CASEL found that the most effective strategies to reduce harassment include a "whole school," or three-pronged approach: a schoolwide component that offers educators training and the means to monitor their school climate; a classroom component that reinforces schoolwide rules and SEL skill development; and an intervention component to help students, both the targets and the perpetrators.

Help Teachers

Provide teachers with training. According to CASEL, teachers may feel social pressure to enable, encourage, or participate in bullying. As bystanders, teachers need practice in confronting group norms and how best to address name-calling. Though it might be tempting for teachers to ignore or excuse bullying, they can learn how to actively defend victims using techniques covered in GLSEN Safe Schools workshops (glsen.org).

Think Ahead

Lead your class through a role-playing exercise. "Ask your students, 'What would you do if this happened?'" says CASEL's O'Brien. Help them think through their responses in advance. This gives students the tools to stop the bullying once it starts. "It's infinitely easier to deal with when you've talked it through in advance as a class," says O'Brien. Ultimately, the goal is for the entire school to "create a culture of respect," O'Brien says. "Every child has the right to experience school as a safe place where he or she is free to learn fully and effectively."

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