illustration of a child with a target over his face, standing in front of a school building

Darkness Visible

How to bring bullying into the light

By Rich Shea • Illustration by Dung Hoang

It’s a cold, gray January morning in Edgewater, Maryland, and the 1,100 students in Central Middle School are rambunctious. Wearing coats, hoodies, T-shirts and jeans, they stop first at their powder-blue lockers and then head to their homerooms while carrying on conversations that compete with the din of a building filled with eager adolescents. They may be extra-amped because a snowstorm closed the school yesterday and delayed today’s opening; plus, it’s Friday—the weekend’s coming up. So, as Principal Mildred Beall kicks off the morning announcements, teachers have to spend extra time settling everyone down.

Soon, four eighth-grade girls gather round the microphone and wait for a fellow classmate to play the opening chords of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the piano. They sing utterly new lyrics:

I’m just a new kid at Central Middle School
 I get laughed at every day at school
 It’s just not fair, I’ve got no one here
 Why doesn’t anybody care?

The lead-in to the chorus quickly answers:

BAC, we’ve got your back
We are right here, if you need us.

When the song’s over, two more members of BAC (Bully Awareness Crew) make announcements—one for a lunchtime art contest, the other a poem about “kindness” urging listeners to “pass it on.”

If this sounds too good to be true—a Hallmark moment in a Lake Wobegon-like middle school—consider this: The students in Beall’s office are just a handful of the 86 eighth-graders who have joined BAC since its inception in the spring of 2010. That’s when the class’s guidance counselor, Sandra Seward, asked several of its then seventh-grade members to come up with a student-led means to combat what the federal government considers an urgent problem.

“About 30 percent of youth report they’ve been involved in bullying, as a victim or perpetrator, on a frequent basis within the past month,” says the Bloomberg School’s Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, and a renowned expert on bullying. In August 2010, she spoke at the first-ever Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C.

By the time students graduate from high school, Bradshaw notes, 80 percent will have witnessed at least one bullying incident. At the middle school level—the peak time for bullying—more than 30 percent of students don’t feel safe from physical, verbal and/or indirect abuse, including cyber-bullying, she says.

Central Middle, like other schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, is doing something about the problem—in part because of state and school district mandates. Maryland is one of 45 states that, in the past few years, have passed anti-bullying laws, many requiring school systems to implement reporting, intervention and prevention procedures. While there are many reasons for the current focus on an age-old problem, headline-grabbing incidents have raised its profile. Last year, a Massachusetts high school freshman named Phoebe Prince committed suicide after being bullied for months by a handful of classmates. Her death prompted the state government to pass sweeping anti-bullying legislation in May 2010.

“This is a watershed moment,” says Deborah Temkin, research and policy coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. “We’ve hit a point where the effects of bullying have struck such a chord with people that they’re really taking notice.”

The choice is to act or to continue to suffer adverse public health consequences, says Philip Leaf, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. “On the one end, you have people dying from it, committing suicide,” he says of some bullying victims. As for the bullies themselves, he notes, “children in adolescence engaged in aggressive behavior are at much higher risk for both subsequent juvenile issues and substance use.”

Bradshaw has put together a list of potential effects of bullying. For victims, they include anxiety, depression, lack of sleep and dislike of school. Perpetrators tend to feel the same way about school, while assuming that aggressive behavior is acceptable. And both groups are at a higher risk than their classmates for low academic performance and/or dropping out.

Which is why Bradshaw, who’s been researching the subject for 10 years, has also advised federal, state and district officials on bullying prevention. Her relationship with Anne Arundel schools, in particular, is unique. With the district’s help, she designed a Web-based bullying survey, which serves as an annual data collection system on bullying’s effects on students, staff and parents in the district’s 120 schools.

The questions vary—depending on who, anonymously, takes the survey—but they cover common ground. Both students and teachers, for example, are asked where bullying occurred (e.g., classroom, hallway, playground, bus), in what form (name-calling, rumors, teasing, pushing), and what the student’s reaction was (ignored it, told an adult, bullied back). Among the questions asked of parents is how they reacted when their children were bullied (talked to the child, the bully, the bully’s parents or someone at the school).

“It’s a research-based measure [to describe] what bullying looks like,” explains Bradshaw, who’s featured the findings in numerous papers written since the survey was introduced in 2005. Theoretically, each school can use the survey results to target problems and improve prevention strategies, but they’re not required to, and many schools, like Central Middle, focus more on the number of incidents officially filed as “bullying.”

Chuck Buckler, director of Student Services and Alternative Programs in the Maryland State Department of Education, says, in many schools, that number has increased—and for good reason. “The data may suggest that schools have more incidents [than in previous years],” he explains, “but it’s really a matter that they have more kids, parents and friends willing to file a report. And that means the awareness is there.”

Awareness, Bradshaw says, is the first step in tackling the problem. But it’s not an easy first step for many schools, where the design and implementation of prevention programs vary. Part of the challenge, she says, is that the causes of bullying and the incidents themselves are extremely complicated and, thus, demand more than a disciplinary approach. Ideally, the entire school community—students, teachers, administrators and parents—should participate in an effort that’s sustained over time and not changed from year to year, depending on resources and who’s in charge.

It should also begin, at the very least, in elementary school. “You want to try to get in there early to get kids on track,” Bradshaw says, “because if you wait ’til they have problems, then [behaviors] might be entrenched and harder to change.”

At Central Middle School, the effort includes what she considers key to a whole-school approach—students. Says one BAC member, “We’re just trying to be a good influence for other students, the lower grades and stuff, and say, ‘Hey, bullying’s not cool. You should try to be better people.’”

Lunchtime for the 300-plus sixth-graders at Central Middle School may play havoc on the ears, but there is order in the cafeteria, where one of the monitors is Seward, a former art teacher wearing a black dress, matching boots and a big smile. She grabs a microphone and lets the packed lunchroom know that it’s time to check out the BAC table, where a couple of members will explain the “Two Hearts Contest.”

Soon, a handful of girls are lined up, each holding a pink flier instructing them to draw a design within a heart that “portrays kindness.” They’re told that once two winners are chosen, Seward and a few BAC members will decorate two large wooden hearts using the designs as blueprints. Plus, each winner will get a $15 iTunes gift card.

There’s no pitch for the BAC or any attempt to engage the sixth-graders in a bullying discussion. “Oh, no,” Seward says, “these kids already know about the BAC.” Aside from the weekly announcements, there’s also visual evidence: the laminated hearts, smiley faces and peace signs students purchased from the BAC, at 25 cents each, and inscribed with friendly messages. They share space in the hallways with bright yellow banners featuring BAC-composed slogans such as, “Step Up! So Others Don’t Get Stepped On,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Be Bullies” and “Bullying Is Cruel and NOT Cool.”

Meeting in a conference room with 15 of the BAC members is a good way to sample the enthusiasm firsthand. While they take their role-model responsibilities seriously, they’re also having fun, in part because Seward facilitates biweekly after-school meetings in which members discuss and formulate new ways to get the anti-bullying message out. The group, which has made presentations to parents and district officials, hopes to cap the school year with an assembly featuring performances and a PowerPoint presentation. “This is our first year doing this,” says Seward, whose aim is to have half the eighth-grade class, or 150 students, join by year’s end. “So it’s very much a work-in-progress.”

Even so, the students say they’ve seen the school’s atmosphere change since implementation of the BAC, which welcomes new students—often prime bullying targets—and helps Seward recruit “borderline bullies”—those whose behavior tends toward aggression but can be changed, she says.

To appreciate how far schools like Central Middle have come, it’s worth looking back 10 years, when a series of school shootings, including one that took the lives of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, were met with extreme responses: metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies, among them. “We’ve since learned that the punitive route is not the way to go,” says Temkin of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Sending kids [who’ve bullied] home for three or five or 10 days has no remedial impact in terms of changing their behavior,” concurs Leaf, who, along with Bradshaw, is a co-director of the youth-focused Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention. “If they’re not in school, and not learning anything, there won’t be any changed behaviors.”

The numbers play this out. The rate of bullying, according to Bradshaw, has remained stable, even as other forms of school violence have declined in the past decade.

Bradshaw first took up the anti-bullying crusade in the late ’90s, when she realized, as a graduate student counseling youth in detention centers, that they’d been subjected to various forms of violence, including bullying in schools. The attitude then was that bullying was a rite of passage to be endured. And the research was scant—one or two papers a year. Post-Columbine, however, there was a rush to investigate bullying, accompanied by state and federal grants. “Now, you see at least 100 papers a year,” she says.

In general, Bradshaw reports, “the data suggest that you start to see bullying pick up in late elementary school—grades 4 and 5. Middle school tends to be the peak, and around 10th, 11th grade, it peters out.”

The exception is cyber-bullying, which is on the rise, even though it’s still a small slice of the pie, with roughly 10 percent, on average, claiming to be victims (see Bullying Defined Online and Off).

Whatever the form bullying takes, research indicates that a positive school environment is key to prevention. And, in 2007, Bradshaw and two colleagues reported disconnects between staff and student perceptions on this score. For example, more than 70 percent of staff in elementary schools, 40 percent in middle schools and 57 percent in high schools assumed that the number of students bullied in the previous month was 10 percent or less. But students at those grade levels indicated that 34, 33 and 23 percent, respectively, had been bullied in that time period. And at the middle school level, more than 30 percent of students felt that staff did nothing to follow up reports of bullying.

What makes middle school such a challenge is the timing. Sixth- through eighth-graders are sandwiched between elementary school, when students are supervised round-the-clock, and high school, where the primary focus is academics. Meantime, they’re encouraged to take on a host of responsibilities—juggling the demands of multiple classes and teachers, for example—even as their maturity levels are in flux.

“I don’t think [middle school] kids are natural bullies,” Principal Beall explains. “But, developmentally, they have so many social issues to deal with. Intimacy is important, but they’re very immature. They have feelings of jealousy and competition and sort of love-hate things going on. Generally, they get all mixed up.”

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Beall and her staff recently had to handle a “sticky situation.” A new eighth-grade student, a girl who’d just moved to the area, made the mistake of poking fun at a classmate who, with the aid of friends, retaliated verbally on an almost-daily basis. At Central, Beall says, district-mandated procedures on how to detect and intervene in bullying situations are mixed with those developed in-house, including the use of a “cease and desist” form, on which the perpetrator acknowledges that she’s been harassing a fellow student and intends to stop.

But, in this case, the behavior continued, with both sides engaging in such heated arguments that there was concern about a physical confrontation. So, for a time, certain parties were removed from school. The day they returned, a group of girls entered the school wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a colloquialism intended to embarrass the new student. They were quickly pulled into the principal’s office.

Beall says the situation, which included parental involvement, has been resolved. “Everybody’s moved on,” she explains. “We’ve done a lot of environmental things—changed classes, made sure they’re not at the same lunch tables.”

A whole-school approach to bullying is exactly what district and state policies—and the U.S. Department of Education, which released policy recommendations this past December—endorse. Bradshaw, in fact, goes a step further, recommending a schoolwide framework, developed by the University of Oregon, called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. Although it doesn’t target bullying specifically, PBIS is aimed at establishing—via data collection and positive reinforcements—a safe environment in which students thrive socially and academically.

“We love PBIS,” Buckler says of Maryland, where more than 800 schools have signed on, including half the schools in Anne Arundel County. He cautions, however, that if specific anti-bullying measures aren’t included, “PBIS isn’t going to cut it. It isn’t a stand-alone.” Schools, he says, need to make sure that they’re tailoring anti-bullying efforts toward the needs of their students.

At Central Middle, Beall has asked her best classroom managers—those skilled at keeping students engaged and out of trouble—to share their techniques with colleagues while giving counselors like Seward free rein to involve the students.

“With the announcements, the banners, the songs, what they’re doing is creating a culture,” explains Seward, who, like her fellow counselors, teaches anti-bullying lessons throughout the year. “What I’ve noticed with BAC is, kids are informally reporting things to me that they would not have done before. We’ve set up an environment that says, ‘This is not OK. We do not accept this in our school.’”

This is crucial for Beall. “Formal bullying is not a huge problem [at Central],” she says. “It’s the annoying kinds of behaviors that can lead to bullying that get to be a problem. And the guidance department and student involvement help curb it.”

A drop in bullying referrals—from 13 last year to two this year—is proof, as are Central’s latest bullying-survey results, released in January. In most categories, the school betters the district average. Only 54 percent of students (compared to 62 percent districtwide) feel that bullying is a moderate-to-serious problem, and 78 percent (versus 72 percent) feel safe in school. Would Beall like to see those numbers improve? “Of course,” she says, “but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Bradshaw, who spoke at her second White House bullying summit earlier this year, is of the same mind. “Many anti-bullying policies focus more on documentation and responses than on prevention,” she explains. “They need more training opportunities and evidence-based interventions. And from the research field’s perspective, we’d like to know more about what really works and how to change behaviors. But it’s a start.”