In October 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick broke into an abandoned concrete plant near her home in Lakeland, Florida, climbed to the top of a silo, and leaped to her death. According to the sheriff investigating the case, in the months leading up to her death, Rebecca had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by a group of 15 girls from her former school. She is among the youngest victims in a string of recent suicides related to cyberbullying.
Rebecca’s case is extreme, but it points to a continuing epidemic that has taken on troubling new tones. Cyberbullying is such that teachers and parents may have no idea it’s occurring, and, in the case of Rebecca’s mother, may have thought they were stopping it (see end of article).
No matter the circumstances, bullying online and in person is far too common. According to several studies, nearly one in three students in grades 6–12 experience bullying at school each year. About 24 percent are victims of cyberbullying. Of students who were bullied, 64 percent did not report the incident to an adult.
What can you do to prevent bullying and stop it when it occurs? Our experts, including a clinical psychologist, a journalist who has researched bullying, and a fifth-grade teacher, weigh in. Their advice may help the next time you face a bullying situation in your classroom.
Create a Culture of Respect
Begin the year by teaching ethics and developing a culture of respect among students. “The notion is that we are all in this together,” says Paula Mirk, director of education at the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine.
By building a classroom community, you may stop small incidents from becoming bullying, says clinical psychologist Rachel Busman of the Child Mind Institute. “Teachers have a role to create a classroom environment that is engaging, warm, and free from ridicule or threat,” she says. And because incidents happen on the bus, in the halls, and in the lunchroom, everyone in the building has a role in helping to stop bullying, Busman adds.
Student bystanders can also help to diffuse abusive situations. About 57 percent of bullying stops when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied, according to the National Bullying Prevention Center. While it’s ultimately the job of adults to handle bullying, it’s important to create a culture of openness in which students feel they can tell you if something is happening that makes them uncomfortable, says Busman. Explain that if they come forward with concerns, you will respect their privacy.
If It’s Mean, Intervene
It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between ordinary conflict and bullying. But you don’t have to know someone is being bullied to say, “Hey, cut it out,” says Emily Bazelon, journalist and author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. “I like the mantra: ‘If it’s mean, intervene.’ ”
Sometimes kids need instruction on how to cooperate with others or what words they might use when they are frustrated and want something, says Busman. Gene Bedley, founder of the National Character Education Center, agrees: “Kids who make poor behavior choices many times don’t know what the better options are.” He suggests having the aggressor look at an “option wall” with pictures (for younger children) or words for appropriate behaviors they could use instead of destructive behaviors. Bedley tries to get kids who are bullying to recognize that they made an inappropriate choice. He tells them: “You are better than what you just demonstrated. There are better choices that will strengthen you and build friendships.”
Get Inside the Bully’s Head
There are many factors related to why kids bully. The child may feel isolated, have low self-esteem, get easily frustrated, or have parents who are not very involved, says Busman. Or the child may be well connected socially, domineering, and overly concerned with status, in which case the bullying is related to power.
Turning around a bully’s behavior is complicated. Busman says most kids who bully understand that what they are doing is wrong. “I wish you could simply have a conversation and point out their pattern of behavior, but it’s likely not enough,” she admits. Intervention includes a multilayered approach with a solid school policy, collaboration with teachers, and classroom management and empowerment strategies.
Look to the Administration
Since bullying often happens outside of the classroom and even outside the school, it’s important to have support from the administration. Experts recommend a school-wide reporting mechanism for incidents on the bus or playground or online. Training for bus drivers, lunchroom workers, and recess monitors can help ensure continuity. A policy should make everyone at school feel not only obligated to help but also confident the administration will support them in doing so, Busman says.
Establish a strong home–school connection early on, says Mirk. Reinforce behavior expectations with parents. Once you’ve established a rapport, it’s easier to communicate with parents if an issue arises.
Some parents may become defensive about their child’s behavior. “It can be hard to hear that your child is targeting another child,” says Busman. This is where a strong administration can help by outlining the school’s bullying policy, she explains.
Finally, to reduce the risk of bullying behaviors, Busman tells parents and teachers to encourage kids to get involved in organized activities, such as sports and clubs, where they can learn social skills and makes friends.
Cyberbullying: Beyond Facebook
When Rebecca Ann Sedwick’s mother first learned that her daughter was being cyberbullied, she changed Rebecca’s cell phone number and shut down her Facebook account. Without her mother’s knowledge, Rebecca signed up for the apps Kik Messenger, Ask.fm, and Voxer, entering a world of social media frequented by kids but unknown to adults. The bullying began again, ultimately ending with Rebecca’s suicide.
It isn’t possible to know what each student is up to online but adults should be aware that kids communicate outside the easily monitored reach of texts and Facebook posts. If a student is the victim of cyberbullying, encourage his or her family to keep evidence of the threats, says Justin Patchin, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Many states have laws that make cyberbullying a crime.
Sometimes bullying takes place using technology issued by the school. Kevin Freed, a fifth-grade teacher at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, where every child has a laptop, says that when these instances happen, he contacts the tech administrator. “Kids think they are anonymous but they leave a pretty clear trail,” he says. Once he catches them, Freed talks with the threatening student and goes through the process of establishing consequences set up by the school.