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Stepping Up to Stop Bullying

One caring adult can make a difference in the life of a bullied child.


By Cindy Long

In this article

Dave Seaburg, a fourth-grade teacher in Forest Lake, Minnesota, remembers all too well what it was like to be bullied. As a child, he was small for his age, and much more interested in the arts than athletics. He was constantly taunted and called names just because he didn’t fit into the school’s norm.

“It still haunts me today,” Seaburg says of the wounds inflicted upon him more than 30 years ago.

Back in those days, bullying was considered an unfortunate rite of passage. Instead of being confronted head on, instances of bullying—no matter how cruel—were all too often shrugged off with a simple “kids will be kids.” Fights were broken up, students were separated, and everyone was expected to move on.


Dave Seaburg talks to his students about
name calling.
Photo courtesy of Forest Area Schools

Problem is, everyone doesn’t move on. We now know that for most victims of bullying, the scars will last a lifetime. For others, a lifetime is cut tragically short—a staggering number of children have committed suicide after enduring relentless harassment from their peers.

But research shows that one caring adult can make all the difference in a bullied student’s life. To put an end to “bullycide,” it’s crucial that students know which adults in their school or the community they can go to in times of distress, adults who will really listen to them and then act on their behalf.

“It may seem like no big deal, but the most resilient kids who experienced bullying have said that the one thing that helped them was an adult who cared for them even though they didn’t have to,” says Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D., a professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona and the president of the Society for Research on Adolescence.

That’s why the National Education Association launched “NEA's Bully Free: It Starts With Me” campaign, which encourages caring adults to take the pledge that lets young people know they are willing to step in and stop bullying.

Dave Seaburg is one of those adults.

“Students know I will listen to them, accept what they have to say, and try to help them when they are in need,” he says. “Everyone deserves to feel safe at school, and when kids feel safe and know they are accepted for who they are, they will thrive academically and socially.”

Seaburg starts each school day with a half-hour morning meeting, where he and his students check in with each other, share what’s going on, and participate in activities. The meetings regularly address bullying, and one activity asked students to share how they feel when they’re called names or put down.

“I feel like a nobody,” said Nicole.

“I feel like I don’t exist, or want to exist,” said Kelly.

“I feel like I don’t mean anything to anyone,” said Parker.

The students are reminded how wounding their words can be, and Seaburg sees how important it is to constantly reinforce respectful behavior.

“I can spend a lot of hours building my students up,” Seaburg says, “but it only takes a few seconds to tear a person down with hurtful comments or painful actions.”

Targeting Differences


Usually, the students targeted by hurtful comments or actions are different from their peers in some way. According to a 2010 NEA survey of more than 5,000 teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), staff reported that bullying based on a student’s weight (23%), gender (20%), perceived sexual orientation (18%), and disability (12%) were of concern in their school.

Sandy Neeson, a licensed school counselor at McLean Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, wishes she could figure out how to stop students from cruelly zeroing in on other students who are different.“If I knew how to do that, I would have written a book and been on Oprah a long time ago,” she says.

Instead, she tries to develop students’ empathy. When she hears older students picking on a younger student, she pulls the bullies aside and asks them, “Do you have a little sister or brother? How would you feel if other kids talked to your family that way?”

Neeson says her job is to change behavior, not mete out punishments. To successfully change bullying behavior, she says you must involve the whole school, from teachers and custodians to cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

According to NEA’s research study, nearly 98 percent of teachers and support professionals – across all school levels and communities – agreed it was “their job” to intervene when they witnessed bullying incidents, and that educators are more likely to intervene if they feel they have the support of the school and their colleagues.

But the research also reveals barriers to their ability to do so. For example, educators surveyed reported that just half of their school staff has received anti-bullying training, and staff in urban schools, where the rates of bullying were reportedly highest, are the least likely to have been trained.

NEA provides free bullying and sexual harassment prevention and intervention training for teachers and education support professionals, at the request of NEA local and state associations. The training, built on a research-based curriculum, raises awareness of sexual harassment, bullying, cyberbullying, and sexting behaviors, and spells out concrete steps educators can take to implement school-wide bullying prevention.

At her school in Fort Worth, Neeson helps educators intervene with a program called “Bully Busters.” Each week during the fall and winter sessions, she and a teacher lead short, focused discussions with the seventh and eighth graders during their science or social studies classes (classes all students are required to take.) Posters displaying each week’s topic hang in the hallways and classrooms to foster the discussions; some deal with racial or GLBT bullying, others focus on gossip and exclusion.

You Are Not a Snitch!


One of Neeson’s poster says “You Are Not a Snitch,” addressing the problem of the bystander who doesn’t participate in bullying, but doesn’t try to stop it either. Most students are afraid of getting the bully in trouble, and don’t want their friends to think they’re snitching, Neeson says.

She gets students to talk about it by simply asking questions, like, “Why is it not okay to do nothing when you see someone being bullied?” She also reminds teachers and students that she is a resource for them in any bullying situation; she has an open door policy, gives students her personal email address, and maintains everyone’s confidentiality.

That’s how she was able to stop a locker room bully who’d been stealing one boy’s lunch, and then making a big display of eating it in front of him. A few boys told Neeson, and she called the bully into her office. She never revealed how she found out what he was doing, but she told him it had to stop. The next day, the bullied boy was able to eat his own lunch for the first time in weeks.

Other cases aren’t as easy to resolve. Neeson recalls one boy who was bullied from the first day he walked through the school doors. He lived in an orphanage where his mother left him when he was a toddler. He had a severe overbite, and thick, Coke bottle glasses. His clothes were sometimes wrinkled and dirty, and he was profoundly shy. For all of these things, he was bullied.

When he was bullied about wearing glasses, he broke them, and sat in class squinting at the board. He was teased about his overbite, but later was bullied about wearing braces to the point that he actually tried to rip them out of his mouth. He got into fights regularly and had no idea how to cope with the constant tormenting.

When bullying becomes this severe, Neeson takes it to the next level, contacting the administration as well as the parents of the bullies if they won’t willingly put an end to their behavior.

“It takes a lot of work,” she says.

First, she identifies the leaders of the bullying pack, and speaks to them one–on-one. She then appeals to their conscience and helps them see how hurtful their comments are. As soon as she recognizes regret in the students’ faces, she appeals to them for help, asking them to become ambassadors of goodwill and watchdogs on remaining bullies.

“I always ask the bullies if anyone is bothering them because I won’t tolerate them getting picked on either,” she says. “This seems to really make a difference because I am showing them that I care about their feelings as well.”

By working with the bullies one-on-one, Neeson is able to see a major change in behavior. “This is my goal,” she says. “To help students be empathetic, show kindness, and just be nice!”

Being There for the Bully Victim


Of course, ongoing counseling to bolster the bullied child is just as important. While Neeson made every effort to stop the bullying, she also helped the boy from the orphanage develop coping skills. She told him sometimes the best reaction is no reaction; no matter how angry or hurt he was, a shrug would tell the bullies they weren't getting to him.

She met with the boy regularly. Her office was a safe place where he could cry while she reminded him things wouldn't be this way forever. They began to role-play bullying scenarios to build his confidence. By the end of the year, most of the bullying had stopped and he was able to walk past random taunts unfazed.

He's in high school now, still in glasses and braces, but he walks with his shoulders back rather than hunched in fear.

“He made it because he knew I was in his corner no matter what,” Neeson says. “If children know they have an adult that cares about them, they can make it.”

Bully Prevention Starts with Us

No child should fear being harmed by a bully at school.


By Dave Arnold 


Dave Arnold is a school custodian,
former Illinois Education
Association ESP of the Year,
and a published poet.
Photo credit: Andrea Kane

Most of you can remember a bully in your life. Maybe he was taller than you and had bigger muscles. Maybe she was more popular than you and was mouthy and rude. Whatever the case, you were the target of their abuse. And it hurt. The pain of being bullied never seems to go away, does it?

That’s why it’s the duty of every school employee to do their best to guarantee that our schools are bully-free. As teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), we must do our best to ensure that our students aren’t scarred by bullying and other types of harassment, often based on race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

A Local Effort

I’m head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Brownstown, Illinois, where we’ve had great success with our own anti-bullying campaign. Our Title One reading teacher, Keri Buscher, introduced a program last year after attending a workshop on making schools bully-free. Each morning, when students line up to go to class, she discusses the negative effects of bullying.

Buscher also shows videos to students to define exactly what bullying is and what to do when a student encounters it. She gives quizzes and prizes to motivate student interest. The campaign inspired students to create “bully-free school” posters. One shows a picture of a bucking bull at a rodeo and reads, “Leave bullying to the bulls.” Another displays a picture of a gentle cow feeding in a pasture and reads, “Bullies are Cowards.” One student put it this way: “Bullying is lame, so don’t play the game.” Buscher has also created a “Bully Box,” which students can use to anonymously report bullying.

ESPs on Point

When it comes to making a school bully-free, education support professionals are on the forefront of defense. Why? Students confide in us. Bus drivers are first and last to see students each day. Bus drivers know each student on their buses, and often can tell if they’re having a bad day. At school, the secretary, custodian, security guard, paraeducator, or cook are often friends with students. It’s not unusual for students to approach ESPs with peer problems rather than talking to a teacher or administrator.

Buscher says the best way to prevent bullying in school is for all employees to set a good example. Listening to students and addressing their concerns is also key . Many of us working at schools may not have had a bully-free school in our day, but working together, we can create one in our time for our students.

Straight From the Bullied’s Mouth


By Shaun Johnson

Shaun Johnson is an assistant
professor of elementary education
at Towson University. He taught
fifth grade in Washington, DC
and Silver Spring, Maryland.
He is also a blogger on

The bullying that I experienced from the sixth grade until my sophomore year in high school started when I traded in my hockey boots for figure skates.

My family and I took skating very seriously. Over the 10 years I skated, they must have spent thousands of dollars on the sport, between traveling, lessons from skating and dance coaches, personal training, and boots, which were about a thousand bucks a pop and required long fitting sessions with a skate cobbler. I spent an entire summer training with an Olympic coach at a skating camp in Atlanta. When I returned home, expectations were high, but I just could not take the bullying on top of the pressure of the sport. First I took six months off, then I called it quits. My family was devastated.

Of my skating years, what I remember most were the eyes. For years I skated at the same rink in Western Pennsylvania, and our early evening freestyle sessions ended just before hockey practice. Impatient players came out of these narrow hallways from the locker rooms all suited up, and hung out against the boards. As the only boy on the ice, sometimes one of two, I remember the taunts directed at me through the boards. School was worse still. As soon as we hit sixth grade, I heard “faggot” on a daily basis. I grew up in an average suburb outside of Pittsburgh; even as late as the mid-1990s, cheerleaders and athletes ruled the school. Anything you did that was foreign, strange, and uncomfortable to them was grounds for relentless harassment.

Over the years, I tried everything to make the teasing stop. I wrote an article for the school paper in seventh grade about skating, thinking that information would help. Well, I happened to mention that skating might be harder than playing football or baseball, so I never heard the end of it. Never mind that I had already broken my arm and wrist, and would later skate on a broken tailbone.

One time I snapped. One of my regular harassers was following me down a hallway and stepping on the backs of my shoes. I remember to this day, right outside an art room, shouting, “Jesus Christ,” and punching him in the mouth. Immediate in-school suspension.

Bullying sometimes initiates difficult conversations. We must acknowledge that sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry of all kinds are the primary drivers. It’s hard to admit the problems and begin those healing conversations because, especially in the case of sexual orientation, these are largely taboo topics in schools.

In my case, the harassment had a lot to do with homophobia in my community. I was participating in what was seen as a “gay” or effeminate sport, therefore, I was an object of derision. But as a white, heterosexual male, I do not think it needs to be all about sexual orientation. We can safely initiate conversations with a school or community’s understanding of how they define gender and sexuality. Are we limited to two categories? Are boys and girls only permitted to engage in certain activities or sports? And if they do participate in something challenging prevailing norms, should they be subject to daily ridicule or violence? Maybe we should consider, as an effort complementary to anti-bullying measures, a pro-feminist and pluralistic appreciation of our inherent right to construct our social identities. This way, perhaps educators reluctant to discuss sexuality could at least begin the conversation with the unreasonable and unfounded expectations we have of the everyday roles of men, women, boys and girls.

This essay was first published on EdVoices: NEA's community of bloggers committed to improving America's public schools.

Go to to read posts and get in on the debate.


Marla Schreffler

I’m helping put an end to bullying at my school with the Peer Helping Network,  a diverse group of kids who are committed to making their school a better, safer and more accepting place.

Shaun Johnson

I was bullied as a child for choosing figure skating over hockey, and today I realize that sometimes bullying prevention initiates difficult conversations.

Vincent Pompei

I was bullied badly when I was a student, starting all the way back in elementary school.

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