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Bullying: Does It Get Better?

Today’s bullies have more ways than ever to devastate their victims. It’s time to reconsider the role educators can play in stopping them.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

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Illustration by James Yang

The New Jersey college freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in October isn’t the only young person allegedly driven to death by bullying. Consider the California teen who hanged himself from a backyard tree in September or the Texas 13-year-old who grabbed a gun from his stepfather’s closet a few weeks later.

These high-profile and heartbreaking incidents have happened so frequently in recent months, especially among gay and lesbian students, that there’s a new word for the phenomenon: bullicide. And it’s left educators and parents alike wondering—just what in the world are we doing wrong? How is it some of our children can be so mean? And others so despairing? Aren’t these anti-bullying programs, popular in so many schools, working at all?

It’s possible that what we think we know about bullying isn’t all we need to know — it’s also possible that some of the most commonly held assumptions are misguided or that far too many adults still don’t believe bullying is a serious problem.

But finding the right answers is critical to NEA’s mission of ensuring a quality education for every student. Bullying robs students of their opportunity to learn and “exacts scars that can last a lifetime,” notes NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. Its victims are more likely to fall behind, miss school, and eventually drop out.  We owe them more that that. Says Van Roekel: “It is our shared responsibility to ensure that every child can attend a safe public school.” (To see Dennis Van Roekel’s message to students, click here.)

Messy Work

Many bullying programs apply a one-size-fits-all approach to problems on campus. They train teachers and support professionals to be watchful and consistent (often at a high price). But while it’s critically important for every adult on campus to recognize and stop bullying, Colby College professor Lyn Mikel Brown, co-director of the nonprofit Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, believes most of these “top-down” programs look promising, but don’t go far enough.

“You really have to do this work with students,” Brown says. “Those programs don’t allow for the messy, on-the-ground work of educating kids. That’s what has to happen and it looks different in different schools and communities.”

It likely starts with a needs assessment, going into a school and understanding what are the major issues. Is it harassment of gay kids? Is it kids with disabilities? Who are the harassers? Then, Brown says, you have to engage kids in creative ways to work through those issues: “[R]esponsive classroom work, the work where you have kids sitting in circles and processing this information…that’s the most powerful work.”

A whole-school culture shift needs to happen. And that takes the commitment and active involvement of teachers, support professionals, administrators, parents, and students. It is the kind of work that the NEA Bullying and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Intervention Program has provided (for free) to schools across the country for more than a decade. Its cadre of trainers and curriculum guides helps define both bullying and its impact, provides important data and legal information, and also specifically works to activate the “bystander” — an oft-untapped resource in bullying prevention.

That student, who is neither victim nor perpetrator, has the power to step up and say, “You had no right to make her cry,” and stop bullying in its tracks, says Pennsylvania’s Meredith Monteville, a retired school counselor and long-time NEA trainer. This isn’t easy to do, especially since many kids fear becoming the victims of bullies themselves, but it can be done if adults help model those conversations and empower students to intervene, says Alaska paraprofessional Lorie Miner, also an NEA trainer.

This approach, effective in hallways and cafeterias, also works in online communities, an increasingly common venue for 21st-century bullies. It looks like this: “I don’t think that was very nice what you wrote, and no, I’m not going to forward it to all my friends on Facebook.”

Starting Young

Even those who acknowledge that bullying is a vicious, pernicious problem —and believe it or not some educators still say it’s a “normal” part of growing up, “as if there’s some inalienable right to be bullied!” Monteville scoffs — believe it’s not much of an issue until middle school, maybe fifth grade.

Not so, says Meline Kevorkian, author of 101 Facts about Bullying: What Everyone Should Know. According to a new Harris survey of 1,144 parents nationwide, 67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds worry that their children will be bullied – with good reason. A recent survey of Massachusetts third-graders found that 47 percent had been bullied at least once, more than half said they’d been called names or teased in a hurtful way.

It’s not hard to find bullies on preschool playgrounds – and increasingly it’s about the “relational aggression” that pre-teen girls typically display, the “nobody likes you,” “you can’t sit here,” “where’d you get your shoes? Payless?”

Just turn on the television to see the models for that kind of behavior. Hello, Hannah Montana! “Even little girls are getting messages in their media that to be a girl, you have to be into this relational aggressive stuff. It’s in their cartoons, imbedded lessons on how to ‘dis’ other girls for their clothes,” said Lyn Mikel Brown.

Although it doesn’t do much good to label little kids as bullies — labels at any age are harmful, Brown asserts — this evolution does mean that bullying prevention needs to start young. “The dialogue needs to start in preschool and kindergarten, when these relationships are starting,” Kevorkian says. In the same way we teach pre-reading skills, we need to teach the basics of pro-social skills, she says. It’s critical to reinforce basic messages like, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”


Although bullying is a problem for all kids (even the bullies, who are more likely to end up as convicted criminals) these past few months have seemed especially treacherous for kids who can’t conform to traditional gender roles: the boy who wears pink or the girl who borrows from her brother’s closet. Some are gay, some are perceived to be, but either way they’re the target of sexual harassment.

In 2009, nearly nine of our 10 GLBT students reported harassment at school. Even worse, 40 percent said teachers heard or saw it and never intervened, according to GLSEN: the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Training would help – and NEA also offers training specific to GLBT issues. But the work of bullying prevention doesn’t end at the schoolhouse doors.

In their recently released policy briefing, “Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation,” co-sponsored by NEA, the authors call for both a new focus on inclusive school climates – and also better policies and legislation to protect kids. “One of the things that emerged very clearly as important is the existence of an anti-bullying policy that clearly enumerates protected categories,” says Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN.

Kids in schools with those kinds of specific anti-bullying policies, often approved by local school boards, are more likely to report incidents when they happen and they’re also more likely to report that something is done to help when those incidents are reported, Byard asserts. Other things that research shows can specifically help GLBT kids: The presence of a gay-straight alliance; more inclusive curriculum material; and the presence of visible, supportive adults… like you.

“You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” said Virginia teacher Jaim Foster, a member of NEA’s cadre of trainers on GLBT issues.

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Message to GLBT Students: It Gets Better

Message to GLBT Students: It Gets Better
Dennis Van Roekel gives a message of hope to victims of bullying.