George Lucas Educational Foundation
Bullying Prevention

Anatomy of School Bullying

Understanding the hot spots within schools is essential to putting a stop to student bullying.

Hallways and stairwells are bullying hot spots, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the 2014–15 academic year, students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported nearly twice as many bullying incidents in transitional areas between classes—where they spend a fraction of their time—as in other school areas like cafeterias or playgrounds.

About 5 percent of students faced overtly physical forms of bullying, reporting that they had been “pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on.” Students reported higher levels of verbal and relational bullying, disclosing that they have been “made fun of, called names, or insulted” (13 percent) or were the “subject of rumors” (12 percent). The numbers suggest that digital bullying, which seemed to herald a dangerous new era of harassment when it first appeared, has not developed as predicted. While bullied girls reported online harassment (15.9 percent) at more than twice the rate boys did, they still encountered far more harassment in school environments than digital ones. Only 6.1 percent of bullied boys reported online incidents.

But it’s the location data that jumps off the page of the report. While the playground is typically considered the epicenter of bullying, it’s the more transitional spaces—the fast-moving, highly social hallways and stairwells—that dominate the landscape of student harassment. Almost 42 percent of students who were bullied reported incidents in hallways or stairwells, a number that was similar for both boys (41.8 percent) and girls (41.6 percent). A much smaller percentage of bullied students reported incidents outside on school grounds (19.3 percent), in a bathroom or locker room (9.4 percent), in the school cafeteria (22.2 percent), or on a school bus (10 percent).

Discouragingly, almost 34 percent of bullied students reported incidents in the classroom, a fact that deserves deeper consideration. As a former teacher, I think back to the transitional moments within a class, as students arrived, settled in, transitioned between activities, and then exited. Those situations are chaotic and difficult to manage well—and feel like a possible explanation for this unexpected finding.

Modern thinking on bullying acknowledges the complexity of the problem, and has shifted responsibility away from teachers and administrators, emphasizing instead the positive effects of broader networks and school-wide cultural transformations. According to Edutopia contributor Anne O’Brien, it’s critical to develop a clear code of conduct, to empower “teachers and especially students to help enforce it,” and to socialize the message through activities like all-school assemblies and “art contests highlighting school values.” And a broader look at what Edutopia contributors have written on the topic over the course of years reveals a clear theme: the importance of establishing a web of allies, including administrators, students, teachers, parents, and even unaffiliated citizens. This more holistic, school-and-environs approach is best summed up in our recent blog post “Successful Community Efforts to Prevent Bullying.” It takes a village.

Whatever model of bullying prevention a school adopts—however diverse the coalition summoned to take a stand against bullying—it makes sense to be mindful that hallways and stairwells, taken together, are nearly twice as likely to be the source of the problem as the cafeteria, playground, or buses and bathrooms. Supervision and vigilance in those fluid spaces between classes is likely to benefit vulnerable students disproportionately.

The full report—which, I should warn you, begins with a very detailed description of the statistical models and assumptions used—can be found here. To see critical resources on bullying prevention, take a look at our Bullying Prevention topic page or visit our resource roundup.

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Seth Van Doren's picture

I found this article to be incredibly interesting. From what I recall in my schooling there was a large emphasis on stopping cyber bullying but in person bullying was rarely talked about. Do you think schools should put more effort into talking about the consequences of in person bullying?

Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Seth, I'd say yes. Maybe it's because I teach at an elementary school, but we do talk about reacting to bullies, as well as preventing bullying by standing up for your friends.

BobF's picture

Nebraska, my home state, has a directive from our department of education, to do bullying education. I taught for 37 years and had only 2 or 3 short presentations. I educated myself when a student opened up about their experience.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi, Seth! Our school has been talking about and trying to educate students about all kinds of bullying for many years. It's so hard. So much of the bullying is intentionally done out of the earshot and sight of teachers, so it's hard for us to intervene. We have been trying to change this with student-created messages on our daily news program, but I've been thinking lately that it needs a bigger program, like a school-wide "brand" of kindness, respect, etc. How do you think schools might better influence student behavior?

Jonathan Cassie's picture
Jonathan Cassie
I am the author of "Level Up Your Classroom," a book on classroom gamification, published by ASCD. I am also Director of Curriculum and Innovation at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, CA.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this very topic! I used a participatory action research model at a school in California to have middle school students gather data on their school's student culture through social mapping and photography. Deeply revealing.

BobF's picture

That's a bit of a teaser Johnathan! Could you share some specifics?

Kristen's picture

Collecting discipline data is crucial to decreasing the behavior. Data leads to knowledge and understanding and as a result, leads to change. Getting to the root of the problem is essential. I propose that to begin to address student bullying, we must confront adult vs adult bullying, which is prevalent in our schools, and society in general.

BobF's picture

The research I have done indicates that once a bully always a bully. It is a tough phenomenon to deal with no matter where or what age group.

Kristen's picture

Sadly, I agree. Bullies evolve in an environment that somehow supports their behavior. Bullying can also be a learned behavior.

BobF's picture

But, isn't it interesting that it occurs in all cultures and socio-economic classes across the world? It seems as that it is something genetic that is directing the behavior. That said, it certainly does not condone the behavior!

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