Bruce Parker

Bullying in Schools

Filed By Bruce Parker | March 12, 2008 5:26 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: bullying, bullying prevention educatoin week, gay youth, lgbt youth, Lyn Brown, safe schools

With all the school issues that have been coming up for LGBT youth lately, it seems like a good time to pay attention to the ways that bullying in schools is a part of a larger problem. A problem that can be very deadly.

After the jump, I am posting an article from Education Week by Lyn Mikel Brown that talks about what comes after simple approaches to preventing bullying. I am presenting with Lyn at the American Educational Researchers Association meeting in New York in about two weeks and think that her work on these issues is particularly poignant and relevant as we work to make schools safe.

Education Week
Published Online: March 4, 2008
Published in Print: March 5, 2008


10 Ways to Move Beyond Bully Prevention (And Why We Should)

By Lyn Mikel Brown

Seven years ago, I helped found a nonprofit organization committed to changing the culture for girls. Our work was based on the health-psychology notion of "hardiness"--a way of talking about resilience that not only identifies what girls need to thrive in an increasingly complex and stressful world, but also makes clear that adults are responsible for creating safe spaces for girls to grow, think critically, and work together to make their lives better.

As a result of this work, I've grown concerned lately that "bully prevention" has all but taken over the way we think about, talk about, and respond to the relational lives of children and youths in schools. So, from our group's strength-based approach, I offer 10 ways to move beyond what is too often being sold as a panacea for schools' social ills, and is becoming, I fear, a problem in and of itself:

Stop labeling kids. Bully-prevention programs typically put kids into three categories: bullies, victims, and bystanders. Labeling children in these ways denies what we know to be true: We are all complex beings with the capacity to do harm and to do good, sometimes within the same hour. It also makes the child the problem, which downplays the important role of parents, teachers, the school system, a provocative and powerful media culture, and societal injustices children experience every day. Labeling kids bullies, for that matter, contributes to the negative climate and name-calling we're trying to address.
Talk accurately about behavior. If it's sexual harassment, call it sexual harassment; if it's homophobia, call it homophobia; and so forth. To lump disparate behaviors under the generic "bullying" is to efface real differences that affect young people's lives. Bullying is a broad term that de-genders, de-races, de-everythings school safety. Because of this, as the sexual-harassment expert Nan Stein has noted, embracing anti-bullying legislation can actually undermine the legal rights and protections offered by anti-harassment laws. Calling behaviors what they are helps us educate children about their rights, affirms their realities, encourages more-complex and meaningful solutions, opens up a dialogue, invites children to participate in social change, and ultimately protects them. If we allow kids to speak out, to think critically and question unfairness, we provide the groundwork for civic engagement.
Move beyond the individual. Children's behaviors are greatly affected by their life histories and social contexts. To understand why a child uses aggression toward others, it's important to understand what impact race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, and ability has on his or her daily experiences in school--that is, how do these realities affect the kinds of attention and resources the child receives, where he fits in, whether she feels marginal or privileged in the school. Such differences in social capital, cultural capital, and power relations deeply affect a child's psychological and relational experiences in school.
Reflect reality. Many schools across the country have adopted an approach developed by the Norwegian educator Dan Olweus, the "Olweus Bullying Prevention Program," even though it has not been effectively evaluated with U.S. samples. Described as a "universal intervention for the reduction and prevention of bully/victim problems," the Olweus program downplays those differences that make a difference. But even when bully-prevention programs have been adequately evaluated, the University of Illinois' Dorothy Espelage argues, they often show less-than-positive results in urban schools or with minority populations. "We do not have a one-size-fits-all school system," she reminds us. Because the United States has a diversity of race, ethnicity, and language, and inequalities between schools, bully-prevention efforts here need to reflect that reality.
Adjust expectations. We hold kids to ideals and expectations that we as adults could never meet. We expect girls to ingest a steady diet of media "mean girls" and always be nice and kind, and for boys to engage a culture of violence and never lash out. We expect kids never to express anger to adults, never to act in mean or hurtful ways to one another, even though they may spend much of the day in schools they don't feel safe in, and with teachers and other students who treat them with disrespect. Moreover, we expect kids to behave in ways most of us don't even value very much: to obey all the rules (regardless of their perceived or real unfairness), to never resist or refuse or fight back. It's important to promote consistent consequences--the hallmarks of most bully-prevention programs--but it's also critically important to create space for honest conversations about who benefits from certain norms and rules and who doesn't. If we allow kids to speak out, to think critically and question unfairness, we provide the groundwork for civic engagement.
Listen to kids. In her book Other People's Children, Lisa Delpit talks about the importance of "listening that requires not only open eyes and ears, but also hearts and minds." Again, consistent consequences are important; used well, they undermine privilege and protect those who are less powerful. But to make such a system work, schools have to listen to all students. It's the only way to ensure that staff members are not using discipline and consistent consequences simply to promote the status quo. Instead of labeling kids, let's talk about them as potential leaders, affirm their strengths, and believe that they can do good, brave, remarkable things.
Embrace grassroots movements. There's nothing better than student-initiated change. Too many bully-prevention programs are top-heavy with adult-generated rules, meetings, and trainings. We need to empower young people. This includes being on the lookout for positive grassroots resistance, ready to listen to and support and sometimes channel youth movements when they arise. We need to listen to students, take up their just causes, understand the world they experience, include them in the dialogue about school norms and rules, and use their creative energy to illuminate and challenge unfairness.
Be proactive, not reactive. In Maine, we have a nationally recognized Civil Rights Team Project. Youth-led, school-based preventive teams work to increase safety, educate their peers, and combat hate violence, prejudice, and harassment in more than 250 schools across the state. This kind of proactive youth-empowerment work is sorely needed, but is too often lost in the midst of zero-tolerance policies and top-down bully-prevention efforts. And yet such efforts work. According to a study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, youth-led gay-straight alliances make schools safer for all students. Build coalitions. Rather than bully prevention, let's emphasize ally- and coalition-building. We need to affirm and support the definition of coalition that activist Bernice Johnson Reagon suggests: work that's difficult, exhausting, but necessary "for all of us to feel that this is our world."
Accentuate the positive. Instead of labeling kids, let's talk about them as potential leaders, affirm their strengths, and believe that they can do good, brave, remarkable things. The path to safer, less violent schools lies less in our control over children than in appreciating their need to have more control in their lives, to feel important, to be visible, to have an effect on people and situations.

Bully prevention has become a huge for-profit industry. Let's not let the steady stream of training sessions, rules, policies, consequence charts, and no-bullying posters keep us from listening well, thinking critically, and creating approaches that meet the singular needs of our schools and communities.

Lyn Mikel Brown is a professor of education at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. She is a co-founder of the nonprofit Hardy Girls Healthy Women (

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This is great. Bullying's not just someone being bad, it's the result of a social climate and lots of things people who work in schools don't see. It's important to keep that in mind.

Thanks for the post, Bruce, this stuff is right on! Good luck with your presentation.

Not all bullying needs a motive. Sometimes it occurs as a simple expression of aggression and sadictic cruelty. Bullys seek those perceived as weak or isolated whom they can victimize. The best way to end it is to kick the bully's ass. Not only effective, but deeply satisfying.

battybattybats battybattybats | March 13, 2008 7:33 AM

And if the bully is bigger than you?

And it doesn't always work, after defeating one bully thanks to some karate lessons he needed revenge. He'd lost face in public you see. So he and several friends ambushed me. I was lucky, I could run fast. But that wasn't the end of it.

No, violence often doesn't work. And as the bully is often thumped by a parent at home they stil need to find a victim so if you stand your ground and win they will find someone else to pick on. The problem hasn't been solved but passed on to someone less able to defend themselves.

Compulsary counselling for perpetrators and investigation into their families is my current opinion. That and a widespread deconstruction of the increasingly hierachical and visciously competitive social structure amongst schoolkids.


on reflection of the issue, i can see that you are correct. the problem was only solved for myself, and for those around me. it didn't stop the bullies or the bullying at the entire school. and i think we can even find a few examples of bullies right here on BP. it is an imperfect world.

who is a bully? one who attacks those who aren't equipped or prepared to defend themselves. or perhaps someone who will not defend themselves for reasons of personal dignity. or someone who is absent and is not even present is being attacked. bullying does not always have to be physical. you can be bullied by verbal advantage - cliques, etc. bullies have one thing in common. they feel empowered by degrading others. they are universal cowards.

in defense of my original position, i can only say that you cannot tolerate the abuse. against you, or against others. if you see a bully acting out, call them on it. fight. there are worse things than an ass kicking. you can win if you are smaller and weaker IF you are determined. i did, and i was always physically small.

defend the weaker. defend principle. defend ideals. the more people that have that attitude, the less bullying. the bullies kind of fade out. they just aren't important.

i just thought of somone - a great example from my old stomping ground of cleveland ohio. dennis kucinich. can you get any smaller or more wimpy? but he had the guts to call out cheney and bush and the entire congress! the guy defends our community because we are weaker, not because it affects himself personally. the man is a hero. as a community, we should be ashamed that we haven't given him more support. for now, it doesn't matter, right? wrong! you have to ALWAYS stand on principle or bullies will always find a niche.