Bullying among school-aged children isn’t just about hurt feelings and even occasional bruises, say experts: it can lower academic achievement and have long-term mental health consequences. It is being aggravated by social media. But there are steps schools take to reduce harmful effects on the victims, aggressors and by-standers.
That’s the message experts are sharing the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying created by Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson, which is meeting through December to research and identify current bullying trends, data, and prevention measures occurring across the state in an effort to better understand how to combat this problem.
Dr. Paula Fite, Professor of Psychology and Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas Clinical Child Psychology Program, and Kathy Mosher, Executive Director of the Central Kansas Mental Health Center, provided information on bullying in relation to trauma, mental health, early childhood intervention, social media and suicide; and the experience of a new school and mental health partnership.
Consequences of bullying
The most serious consequences are understandably for victims, ranging from psychological impact like depression, suicidality, anxiety and low self-esteem; behavioral difficulties such as delinquency, acting out, hyperactivity and substance abuse; truancy, absenteeism, dropping out and negative attitudes toward school, resulting in lower academic performance; harmful peer relationships like isolation, rejection and affiliation with other rejected youth; and physical problems from illness, injuries, body complaints and frequent nurse visits.
But there are also consequences for bullies, from anger, depression and hostility to delinquency, aggression, violence, criminality and substance abuse; dislike of school and high conflict relationships; and similar physical impact.
Even bystanders may fall victim to depression, anxiety, hostility, substance abuse, absenteeism and bodily complaints.
Dr. Fite’s research indicates approximately 19 percent of students engaging in bullying behavior; 60 percent report experiencing peer victimization; 10-20 percent of youth experience chronic victimization; and virtually all children will be a witness or bystander to such behavior. New research is broader than some past studies that focused only on school locations.
This data shows that among the top locations for bullying are home, in the neighborhood, at a friend’s house or playground, on a school bus, and at clubs and activities, rather than classrooms, lunchrooms, hallways and bathrooms.
(See how those results compare to a national report on school bullying released this summer in a blog.)
These locations raise challenges for school districts because they have less control and supervision over many of these areas and are limited in disciplinary actions for behaviors outside of school and school activities. Yet bullying outside of school can have a major impact on students at school.
What school leaders can do
School Board Policy
Dr. Fite presented to the task force recommendations for school district policies developed by the U.S. Department of Education. These include:
- Anti-bullying policies should explicitly state that any form of bullying is unacceptable and will be taken seriously by school personnel, students and families.
- Policies may benefit from clearly defining bullying to reduce ambiguity about what behaviors are covered. At a minimum, policies should be clear about the contexts covered, such as behavior on school grounds, school-sponsored activities and events (on or off campus, on school transportation or through school-owned technology).
- Policies should include consistent reporting, investigating and tracking procedures that staff are aware of and trained on how to use; and clear reporting procedures for students, family and community members on how to report an incident and how it will be investigated. Policies and procedures should be shared and posted so that all concerned are informed of the school’s response to bullying.
- School policies should consider outlining the disciplinary actions and sanctions for bullying.
- The recommendations state that policies “may benefit” from stating that bullying motivated by race, gender, social class, religious beliefs, sexual or gender identity and relevant characteristics is strictly prohibited.
Both experts suggested to the task force other strategies schools can adopt to reduce peer victimization:
- Surveying students and staff about how, when and where bullying is taking place.
- Increase monitoring of areas where bullying can happen; remove aggressors if possible; and change routines to avoid these situations.
- Take steps to improve relationships between students and staff, so students have trust they can report concerns and be taken seriously.
- Work to strengthen parental involvement, which is associated with higher academic performance and lower relational victimization.
- Develop targeted intervention to work with victims, such as group-based behavioral intervention that focuses on problem-solving, coping skills and positive self-evaluation.
- Increase mental health support for students by partnering with local mental health providers, to provide consistent services 12 months a year, 24 hours a day.
Many of these recommendations, such as increased support for student social and emotional needs and strengthening partnerships with parents and community resources, are not only recommendations for addressing bullying but are key concepts in the State Board of Education’s school redesign process and school accreditation system.
Dr. Fite stressed that research is still limited on the effectiveness of these policies and other programs, but research does indicate that schools with strong commitments to social and emotional support have shown positive results.