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Weigh In: What's the Best Way to Deal With Bullying?

In the wake of alarming headlines, administrators share what works.

Report It
Nancy Grasmick: "Maryland requires that bullying incidents be reported," says Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "Our state has made great strides in preventing and intervening in bullying. We ask that incidents be reported on a standardized form, that each incident be investigated, and that bullying data be reviewed and released on an annual basis. More recently, the Maryland legislature mandated a model state policy prohibiting bullying, harassment, and intimidation. This policy requires that school systems provide a prevention program for students, staff, volunteers, and parents, and teachers and administrators must be trained on implementation. To spotlight the issue, Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley and I asked the governor to declare the week of April 24-28, 2010, ‘Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week in Maryland.'

"There are still those who haven't recognized the serious impact that bullying has on the lives of the victims. Bullying is not teasing. Teasing is a playful act and results in a positive reaction by the person being teased. Bullying is an attempt to gain power over another person, and the reaction is usually very negative. There are at least three individuals involved in every act of bullying: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. Programs geared to getting the bystander involved show success. The bystander needs to feel empowered to either get help or to try to intervene. The same is true for the victim; he or she must feel empowered to act. We are constantly communicating to our children that they must tell an adult.

"Cyber-bullying is causing a great many concerns for school officials. Most cyber-bullying occurs at home, but the consequences spill over into school. We suggest that home computers be set up in community spaces, not in private bedrooms, and that parents involve themselves in how their children use the computer. Moreover, children should be taught some resiliency skills if they are bullied over the Internet. They should know to tell an adult, change their screen name, or simply shut the computer down for a period of time.

"We have had great academic success in Maryland, but we know that bullying is the sort of activity that compromises the ability of our children to excel academically. Maryland is working hard to make public schools bully-free zones. To achieve this, we need everyone on board, including school officials, law enforcement, parents, teachers, students, and community leaders."

Encourage Students To Ask For Help
Jim Scales: "We encourage students to bring issues to teachers or administrators before they escalate," says Jim Scales, superintendent of Hamilton County (TN) Schools. "Bullying has been an issue in every school since the one-room schoolhouse. Students have social issues that they deal with in the community, and often, they bring those issues and behaviors with them to school. In Hamilton County, we do not tolerate bullying. Instead, we help students manage situations and minimize potential conflicts. We actively engage our students in conflict resolution programs and train teachers how to monitor behavior for potential bullying situations.

"Our Students Taking a Right Stand (STARS) program helps us stay on top of bullying issues. The program takes the lead in keeping our staff updated on new anti-bullying curriculum and strategies. We also have a strong district-wide Character Education program that incorporates anti-bullying themes throughout the year.
Several middle schools are implementing a new anti-bullying program this year that involves students working together toward common solutions.

"I have been in education for nearly 45 years, and during that time, one thing has not changed: Kids are kids and they will act out if not given proper boundaries and guidelines. In addition to teachers and administrators, parents, guardians, family members, and the community play a huge role in shaping the character and behavior of tomorrow's adults. We can't do it alone. We must engage everyone in our quest to provide society with productive citizens."

Start With Preschoolers
Mark Skvarna: "You can't start too early. We begin to address the issue in our Head Start and preschool programs," says Mark Skvarna, superintendent of Baldwin Park (CA) Unified School District. "We teach our youngest students ‘value education': how to respect one another, how everyone is an individual deserving to be heard, how pushing and shoving is no way to get things done. This is the stuff you can't test but that you must teach children early as they start their journey from preschool to college. We also ensure that teachers and support staff are very much aware of the issue of bullying, so that if they see it happening, they can nip it in the bud.

"When we do have situations of bullying in school, we don't tolerate it. Above and beyond punishment, however, we also take the time to find out why the student or students who are bullying are acting out. I don't think people are born nasty; I think you'll find that if kids are engaging in bullying, there are reasons behind it. Often, extenuating circumstances outside of school-at home, in family life-are causing the student to act this way. So it's important to talk to the student, not only to explain why the behavior is inappropriate, but also to find out what else is going on and see if we can help in any way. Especially now, because times are so tough for so many families, kids are going to act out in a myriad of ways. Unless you address the problem, what is going on with them, they will continue this kind of behavior.

"Some of this newer technology is absolutely making bullying worse. With just a few touches to a keypad, students can broadcast something negative about another student all over the world. ‘Sexting' [sending sexually explicit texts and/or photos over cell phones] has especially become a problem. To deal with this, we keep kids informed as much as we can about why this is unacceptable. Our school police department gets involved, too, letting our students know that doing this might even be a criminal offense, for example, if an 18-year-old has this interaction with a 16-year-old. Some of this technology is coming so quick, and it changes so many things, I'm not sure it's for the better. It's a tough enough time to grow up."

Use Peer Counseling 
Lonnie J. Edwards: "Currently, we're reviewing a peer counseling program with our social workers," says Lonnie J. Edwards, superintendent of Jackson (MS) Public Schools. "This could be an avenue that would help sensitize children not to engage in inappropriate behavior. Peers have a significant impact on one another, so they can really be our best allies.

"Also, over the summer, we discussed cyber-bullying at our weeklong administrative conference. We know it happens, so although we haven't had any major reports of it yet in our district, we want to stay out in front of it.

"Children are going to behave like children, but in our district, we make sure to address every reported incident that may be bullying. We talk to the student involved, the parents, the principal, and the teachers who may have reported it. We do a comprehensive review to clarify the incident and possibly classify it as bullying. Certainly, if we see the kind of repeat behavior in which a student is called names or is threatened during the day, or even scared to visit certain parts of the school, we see that as bullying. Sometimes one-time incidents do not classify as bullying, but we review all cases.

"Once we classify it as bullying, we make sure the parents are informed that the case has been labeled as such. We try to find out why the student chose to behave this way, and we provide counseling for the student. We work with the child on how to make better decisions about how he or she deals with other students. We make sure they know that their behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable. As a result, we end up with a student better informed about how to deal with social issues."

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