According to StopBullying.gov, around 30% of U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. That means if you were to walk into any classroom in your school right now, up to one-third of the students would tell you that at least once they were the victim of harmful physical or emotional abuse. With already alarming rates of depression and anxiety among young people, the need to build communities of kindness and tolerance have never been higher. Not only is it the responsibility of our school leaders to create a safe and productive learning environment for young adults and children, but it is also their responsibility to foster a culture of acceptance and to maintain zero-tolerance policies for harmful bullying practices. This October, learn what you can do as a leader in your district to redefine the narrative around bullying and help create an academic environment that creates an ideal balance of equality and individuality.
Understand the Definition of Bullying
As a school leader, you can help create a framework around intolerable behavior by crafting clear anti-bullying policies. To develop such restrictions; however, you must first understand what constitutes bullying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education released a uniform definition of bullying in 2014. The definition encompassed unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.1
Beyond this definition, understand that bullying typically follows one of two modes: direct bullying that occurs in the presence of a target, and indirect that includes indirect harassment such as the spreading of rumors. Also, bullying can come in the form of physical, verbal, relational (i.e., attempting to harm one’s reputation), and property damage. Bullying can occur in person, or online through social media or digital chat platforms in which case it is typically defined as cyberbullying.
Understanding how broad the scope of today’s current definition of bullying is critical to developing effective proactive prevention strategies as well as disciplinary repercussions.
Seven Tips to Create a Culture in Schools Where Bullying is Not Acceptable
- Create a Written Policy. If your school does not already have a clearly defined anti-harassment policy in its student code of conduct, now is the time to create one for acceptance by your school board and fellow leaders. It is no longer enough to state that your school does not tolerate acts of bullying. By creating a clear policy in writing, you create expectations and requirements against which you can hold instigators responsible.
- Share Your Anti-Bullying Policy with Students and Parents. Make sure to ask students and their parents to read and sign your anti-harassment policy. This requirement will serve as a critical reminder of the behavior you expect from your students and will give parents a prompt to talk about the issue of bullying with their children. Enabling such in-home discussions will hopefully encourage those who have been the victims of harassment to speak up about their suffering before it takes too much of an emotional toll. It may also help students who know they have mistreated others to rethink their behavior and reflect on its seriousness.
- Follow Through on Disciplinary Actions. Your anti-harassment policy should clearly state what the consequences are for violating the school’s policy on bullying. When faculty, staff, and parents bring violations to the awareness of school leaders, the predefined disciplinary rules should be enforced without exception. By consistently handling bullying instances students will understand the seriousness of the actions and will think about the possible short and long-term consequences to their academic career before treating a classmate hurtfully.
- Hold Training for Faculty and Staff. Not all instances of bullying will take place in the classroom under the eye of a school faculty or staff member. In fact, the vast majority will not. Teachers and staff must be trained to spot the signs of harassment. Such signs may include a student who is isolated from peers or avoids interacting with specific groups of students. By holding annual training with student development and behavior experts, you can give your faculty and staff the training they need to intervene early, ask the right questions, and identify trends before the harm becomes irreparable.
- Know the Law. While there are not currently any federal laws that address bullying, any form of harassment related to a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion may fall under the guidelines of such discriminatory harassment and federal civil rights laws as Title II, Title VI, Title IX, or Section 504, and public schools are legally obligated to address such instances. Also, each state has bullying legislation in place, making it critical that school leaders understand federal and state laws and actively enforce them.
- Build Age-Appropriate Education Into Your Curriculum. It is never too early to teach young people lessons of tolerance and kindness. Every education level needs to include annual instruction and dialogue regarding the consequences of bullying and the importance of treating one another with equality. Education should also reinforce the values of accepting one another’s differences regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors. Not every student may receive such foundational discussions at home, making it critical that dialogue happens in the classroom.
- Incorporate Parents into Planning and Discussion. The values of kindness and acceptance taught in school must be reinforced when students are outside of the classroom. Involve parents in your anti-bullying initiatives by maintaining an open dialogue with them as your school creates policies and programs and evolves its requirements.
The dangers of bullying cannot be ignored. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, and bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. By creating and enforcing district-level expectations, collaborating with parents, and arming teachers, you can create a culture of acceptance in your schools. Over time, your school can be one of the thousands that redefine student behavior and helps to finally put an end to the current trend of devastatingly harmful harassment.
Helpful Resource for School Leaders
STOMP Out Bullying™ — Every October, schools and organizations across the country join STOMP Out Bullying™ in observing National Bullying Prevention Month. This website provides weekly activities, information and even an online participation guide for students.
1. CDC. “Preventing Bullying.” CDC.gov, 2018, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-factsheet508.pdf.↩