How can a school combat bullying? This article outlines a 13-Point Bullying Prevention Plan that can be led by the principal of any school to both reduce the amount of bullying and provide a safety net for those affected by it. While there is really “nothing new” regarding each of the 13 points, my experience over 14 years as a school superintendent in charge of safe schools in a southwestern Ontario school district is that when a school adheres to all of them, there will be a reduction in bullying. These 13 elements in bullying prevention do not carry a financial requirement for schools and rely on effective principal leadership. What the 13-Point Bullying Prevention Plan is not about, however, is a “quick fix.” Successful bullying prevention in schools requires the united efforts of the staff and school community.
1. Involve the entire school community
It is very important that staff, starting with the principal and including all teaching staff and anyone else who works in the school – educational assistants, bus drivers, support personnel, and parent volunteers – be actively aware of bullying and able to address it. The school community must be on board with bullying prevention. Only through the concerted efforts of the school staff, in conjunction with the school community, can bullying be acted on both at school and at home. Start by providing bullying prevention information to the school community at the start of each school year, as well as outlining the consequences for bullying behaviour.
As well, some class time should be devoted on an ongoing basis to discussing bullying and peer relationships with students. Bullying prevention themes and messages can be incorporated into daily activities and can be displayed in hallways and classrooms. It is critical that the bully prevention focus is not simply given “lip service” by staff. It must genuinely be a priority within the school and must rank as a topic of importance alongside literacy, numeracy, and secondary graduation rates.
2. Establish a bullying prevention committee
The principal, as leader of the school, should establish and lead a bullying prevention committee, with membership comprising representative teachers from different divisions or departments, non-teaching staff, and several parents from the school community. It is the responsibility of this committee to direct the bullying prevention initiative of the school. Since the principal has the legal authority to mete out discipline to students found guilty of bullying, it is appropriate that he or she be the leader of the committee. The committee cannot be allowed to stagnate; membership needs to be changed periodically but the principal remains the key driving force as, ultimately, the effectiveness of any bullying prevention plans rests with him or her.
3. Create a caring school climate
For any bullying prevention program to be truly effective, the atmosphere of the school must be warm and inviting. What does that mean? A warm and inviting school is one in which the staff take pride in their school and there are obvious signs of positive learning. Parent and visitors to the school are made to feel welcome by all staff; student work and awards are prominently displayed; staff greet students in the hallways; and there is a feeling of belonging within the building by all who work and study there. Both staff and students work in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Student discipline is fair, appropriate to the circumstances and judiciously applied. Teachers take a personal interest in all of their students.
A school environment that is supportive, friendly and caring is not conducive to bullying; moreover, it is far easier for victims of bullying to obtain help and assistance in such a setting. Bullies can thrive in schools that do not provide an inclusive, caring, and accepting environment.
4. Implement a school climate survey
How does a school know where to start when addressing bullying? The answer begins with a school climate survey. Students, parents, and staff are surveyed about their perceptions of the school atmosphere, and specific questions about bullying that need to be posed, including how much bullying occurs and where it frequently takes place. Repeat the survey at least every two years to monitor any changes within the school community over time. This information can then be used by the bullying prevention committee to map out next steps. Each school is different in staff composition, student demographics, and physical plan; so, results garnered from the surveys will help pinpoint issues related to bullying that are unique to each building.
5. Identify school “hot spots”
Each school has certain locations where bullying is far more prevalent. Such “hot spots” necessitate increased adult supervision. At elementary schools, hot spots for bullying usually include the playground and on the buses to and from school. Change rooms for physical education and the cafeteria are places where bullying occurs in both elementary and secondary schools because there is minimal or no direct supervision. Class change times, when students are moving between classes in the hallways, are prime bullying opportunities in middle and secondary schools. All of these potential hot spots should be identified and the school bullying prevention committee must create a plan to provide more adult supervision in these areas, both as a deterrent and so that bullying can be quickly identified and acted upon.
6. Ensure teachers know how to deal with bullying
All staff should feel capable of effectively intervening in a bullying situation. When teachers observe bullying, they need to take direct and swift action to end it on the spot. Teachers should be able to support victims and help them to “save face” and calm down. Intervention by teachers into instances of bullying should be routinely and consistently carried out. All staff require some training on what bullying “looks like” and how important it is to nip the bullying quickly before it becomes more entrenched. Up-to-date literature regarding bullying can be disseminated to staff by the school’s bullying prevention committee. A good resource for both teachers and administrators can be found at www.prevnet.ca.
7. Teach students bullying prevention strategies
Inevitably, some students are going to be victimized. Those who do not have a cluster of friends to support them will be vulnerable. Students who have minimal friendships and who are non-assertive are at greater risk of being bullied. It is important that schools teach tactics to help students avoid becoming the victims of bullying.
Students also need to be made clearly aware of the potential risks that abound with current Internet access. Students should know that if they receive unwanted electronic communication they can IGNORE, BLOCK, and REPORT it.
8. Establish clear, consistent consequences for bullying behaviour
Schools must have clear and explicit expectations that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated. School rules/codes of conduct must identify that bullying of all kinds will be dealt with using progressive discipline. There must be teeth to the rules – appropriate consequences, from detention to suspension to possible expulsion for serious incidents, are part of the principal’s arsenal so that the school community fully understands that individual student safety must be upheld.
Bullies also require support and counselling to help them change their behaviour and acquire empathy for their victims. The principal needs to involve the bully and his or her parents. Efforts to counsel the bully must be coupled with clear disciplinary action that lets the school community know, in no uncertain terms, that bullying is not tolerated.
9. Don’t turn a blind eye to cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is definitely here to stay. The rapidly changing and more sophisticated means that students now have to communicate with (and about) one another is a complex issue that must be dealt with by school administrators. Gone are the days when principals could reason that if it “didn’t happen at school” or “it didn’t happen during school hours” they need not deal with cyberbullying. On the contrary, when students target and bully other students through various electronic means, principals have an obligation to investigate, and when necessary, impose disciplinary consequences.
A constant bombardment of cyberbullying can have a devastating impact on young people. When a student of any age is targeted through the use of e-mail, texting, sexting, Facebook, Twitter, or other means, the victim is at risk of emotional traumatization. This is not conducive to learning and must be brought to the attention of the school administrator. When it is, principals must investigate just as they would any other alleged misbehaviour involving students.
A tremendous resource for both teachers and school administrators can be found at www.cyberbullying.us. This site is managed by two American experts in cyberbullying, Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja, who are co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center in the U.S.
10. Establish a school bullying tracking system
A means of tracking bullying incidents at schools – whether it is the tried-and-true binder containing a list of bullying incidents or an electronic database – is essential. The reason is quite simple: aggressors bully repeatedly. By having a constantly updated file listing all such infractions, principals have names, dates, types of incidents and consequences at their fingertips. As a result, a profile of who is victimized and who is doing the bullying can be accurately identified. Progressive discipline can be used on offenders while support can be provided to the victims. The most important benefit of such a tracking system, however, is the impact that it has on the student body. Students soon realize that bullying is being closely monitored and that there are clear, negative consequences in store for all who bully. Bullies are more closely watched by school staff because of their “track record.”
Gone are the days when principals could reason that if it “didn’t happen at school” or it “didn’t happen during school hours” they need not deal with cyberbullying.
11. Establish a confidential reporting system
A confidential reporting system does not need to be an elaborate set-up that requires much time and effort. Some schools employ a “talking locker” where students can leave anonymous notes identifying bullies and/or victims. Some secondary schools have employed electronic communication between students and school administrators via a link from the school webpage. Whatever method is used, the critical issue is that there is a vehicle available for students to be able to let the school authorities know, in a confidential way, of victimization that is taking place.
Just having the principal walking the hallways and grounds of the school is a useful strategy. When a principal is consistently present in the hallways and classrooms at class change, recess and lunch time, he or she gains valuable insights regarding student behaviour. By careful observation, an astute principal can sense when a student has been marginalized and potentially targeted. Potential targets of bullying can be identified and referred to the school’s bullying prevention committee.
12. School staff must provide support for victims of bullying
This is a critical requirement for an effective school response to any form of bullying. Victims of bullying need support to clarify the truth that what they have been subjected to was wrong and must not continue. Whether speaking to a classroom teacher, an educational assistant, a social worker, a child and youth worker, or a guidance counsellor, victims need to be able to sit with someone and express their feelings about being bullied and receive individual support and counselling.
13. Bring new staff members into the program
One of the many challenges that principals face is constant and ongoing staff changes each year. Principals need to ensure that all incoming staff members are immersed in bullying prevention policies and procedures. New staff members who may not understand the potential damaging impact of bullying need to receive this information upon their arrival. Buddying up teachers new to a school with experienced staff who can mentor them on how the school “deals” with bullying is a way to quickly help the new faculty recognize and understand the importance of student safety and the prevention of victimization. As obvious as it seems, students should be able to count on school staff for protection from bullying and it is important that new staff recognize what to look for and how to respond when bullying occurs.
The 13-point Bullying Prevention Plan has no costs associated with its implementation and will have a significant impact on reducing school bullying. I encourage you to try it at your school.
First published in Education Canada, March 2014
EN BREF – Comment une école peut-elle combattre l’intimidation? Cet article énonce un programme en 13 points de prévention de l’intimidation que peut mener la direction de n’importe quelle école à la fois pour réduire la fréquence de l’intimidation et pour fournir un filet de sécurité aux personnes touchées. Bien que ces 13 points ne comportent rien de vraiment nouveau, l’intimidation diminue lorsqu’une école les instaure tous, d’après l’expérience de plus de 14 ans de l’auteur à titre de surintendant responsable de la sécurité dans les écoles d’un conseil scolaire du sud-ouest de l’Ontario. Ces 13 éléments de prévention de l’intimidation n’imposent pas de charge financière aux écoles et s’appuient sur un leadership efficace de la direction d’école et sur les efforts conjoints du personnel et de la communauté scolaire.