Schools taking the stand against bullying

Rochester High School, in the Rochester 3A district

Rochester High School, in the Rochester 3A district

The problem of bullying among children and teenagers is acknowledged by many. One need not look hard to find information on the topic – especially as it pertains to the lives devastated or ended as a direct result of it. Some people might think that accepting there is a problem is enough. Others recognize the need for further action, but  do not know what they can do individually to incite change.

I grappled with that question myself. I wanted to understand what can and must be done to proactively address this complex problem. I wondered what kind of action is necessary to ensure that children may attend school to learn – without feeling scared, uncomfortable, or even traumatized.

It took some time to even begin to uncover the answers to those questions. From an awareness raising perspective I could focus a lot of time discussing the countless students who have been negatively affected by bullying or other harassing behaviors. Many of these stories are heartbreaking. There is no question they would disturb you and move you, but only a few of them would provide any true insight into what is happening in some of America’s schools to overcome the problem. Somehow I feel that emphasis on solutions and best practices might empower people more.

For this reason, I am focusing a few of my upcoming articles about bullying on the prevention perspective. There is no question a great number of schools are handling this problem incorrectly, but I want to tell you about one that has made solving this problem a priority. I am also going to tell you how they have reduced the behavior substantially within the school’s district.

The Rochester 3A Schools

Rochester, Illinois is a small village located within the county of Sangamon. In 2006, the region’s school district, known as Rochester 3A, held a Saturday morning community engagement day. Approximately 45 members of the little community met to discuss school-related matters. The topic of bullying was raised and identified as a major area of concern among the community.

Instead of glossing over the problem, or merely vocalizing a commitment to resolving the issue, the district took steps to tackle it aggressively. The district identified the problem as a priority within the district’s strategic plan and set about implementing four primary steps. These included defining the problem and its scope, outlining a board policy in response to the problem, developing an action plan, and creating a metric for measuring progress through the use of a survey.

The Rochester 3A schools administer a comprehensive survey to staff and students every three years. The schools compare data from each survey against baseline information collected in the beginning of the program. This provides the district with measurements of the program’s efficacy and progress. The district provides a high degree of transparency with regard to its program and its surveys. Those interested in the questions and results may find the surveys here.

The Director of Educational Services, Laurie McWard, at the Rochester district is among those who have been integral to the efforts on behalf of the school. In a recent interview with me, Laurie explained that a successful bullying prevention program requires specific components. These include the following: the school and its district must make the problem of bullying a priority; training provided to staff must be frequent and consistent; the curriculum must be proactive; data gathered by the school must be analyzed regularly; the schools must administer and evaluate surveys; and the district must develop an action plan that addresses specific issues identified in the survey results.

Laurie added that her school district benefited from working with a consultant outside of the schools. She also touched on how these types of widespread prevention programs are effective because they change the culture inside of the school among staff and students. “Although we still have some issues, the majority of our students don’t tolerate bullying and this culture change starts early in their school experience.”

Laurie credits the staff, students, Board of Education, and the district’s administrative team for the program’s success to date. She also explained that a major contributor to the district’s ability to address the problem was the assistance of Dr. Michael R. Carpenter, a nationally certified bullying prevention program trainer and anti-bullying consultant through Olweus.

I inquired about how the bullying prevention program has influenced student behavior in other general areas. For example, I was curious to know if the program had caused a decline in disciplinary problems in general. Laurie gathered feedback from some of the schools administrators. “One Principal commented that his direct contact and instruction with his students about bullying – what is teasing, etc. – has had a real impact on his young students,” she said. “Another Principal also has periodic meetings with each of his grade levels to discuss any building issues and bullying is a topic he includes. He attributes his regular direct contact with students has also helped his discipline data.”

I would be interested in seeing more research in this particular area because I suspect that implementation of successful bullying prevention programs helps to reduce other types of discipline problems within the schools. It might also be interesting to see comparative data on successful bullying prevention programs and their impact on adult criminal behavior among those who attend schools with these programs versus people who attend schools that fail to address the problem.

Dr. Michael Carpenter

Dr. Michael Carpenter

Dr. Carpenter, credited by Laurie as helping the school to develop and facilitate its program, provides extensive training and resources to those seeking solutions. His website, provides insight into the best and worst practices regarding bullying when it comes to school administrators, counselors, and teachers.

He agreed to talk to me about the program and the work he has done to provide schools with the knowledge and training necessary to combat bullying. He pointed out that the decision not to make bullying prevention a priority among schools and communities is much more costly than implementing proven solutions.

When asked about the biggest obstacles faced by schools when it comes to addressing bullying in an effective way he responded, “Schools want a quick fix. Schools are also so dysfunctional that accountability is the biggest problem.” He also cited financial considerations as a major barrier preventing schools from effectively handling the problem. It is important to note here that the costs associated with implementing the program within the Rochester 3A district were only about $5,000. These costs are negligible when compared with the costs associated with ignoring the problem.

I asked Dr. Carpenter to provide insight into the main reasons schools fail at this effort. “Bullying takes a systemic and comprehensive effort,” he explained. “The focus should not be on the schools but on all parts of our society.” He added that schools have an opportunity “to be a part of a joint effort to create an inclusive environment.”

Dr. Carpenter outlined critical components to addressing the problem in any school environment. The first is adult role modeling. The second is getting everyone involved, including the students, parents, the community, the educators, and bystanders. He included the following elements as well: “Weekly class meetings on bullying, character education, and civility; on-going awareness with research-based practices; teaching prevention and intervention skills; and measuring the success using reliable, valid, and consistent methods.”

I discussed with Dr. Carpenter the short-term and long-term consequences of bullying when schools fail to address the problem. He relayed some of these as follows:”Students may drop out or be absent (huge cost to education and society), health problems for those targeted – stress, depression, anxiety, lack of sleep. Targets and aggressors use more alcohol and other drugs (huge cost for health care).”

He added, “If we don’t intervene early – by age 24 – 60% of aggressors will have at least one conviction. The cost for health problems because of bullying or victimization has been estimated to be two million per individual when they reach age 35. Long term effects can be suicide or homicide.”

Laurie McWard agreed that failure to address the problem of bullying has long-lasting consequences. “Students who are bullied may have long lasting issues,” she said.

I asked Dr. Carpenter what people need to know when it comes to implementing solutions. “The focus should not be on identifying bullying behavior but identifying those behaviors that interfere with learning. Schools and staff should be mandated reporters for any behavior that impacts learning. The information should be sent to a safety team to make a decision if it is bullying. There should be strict accountability measures. Schools should use certified bullying prevention trainers who know the research literature on best practices to train their staff on bullying prevention.” He said that programs other than his may be successful provided they include critical components discussed herein.

Dr. Carpenter maintains that while the problem of bullying will never be eliminated “our goal is to reduce it.” Reduction comes from empowering members of the community, teachers, students, and administrators. “Students should have a voice in their education,” Dr. Carpenter said. “They should be making decisions. Schools should get away from rules and punishments and move toward cooperation, collaboration, and agreements. If schools model coercive, intimidating environments, it’s no wonder why schools can’t reduce bullying.”

Laurie explained that the Rochester 3A schools plan to continue working toward improving the district’s program and approach. In the upcoming year, the district plans to continue training; analyze and monitor bullying data; implement an incident reporting form; increase training in the high school surrounding character education and awareness; and put more information and resources online for parents of the school’s students.

An important lesson to take away from what the Rochester 3A schools have achieved through the help of Dr. Carpenter is that there are effective solutions when it comes to significantly reducing this problem in school. This district is proof of that and they are not alone in their success. However, such a solution requires full commitment on the part of the educators, parents, students, communities, and administrators. While there are no simple solutions, long-term efforts help schools provide a safe learning environment for students.

And ultimately, these actions save lives.

Additional Resources

Websites for Dr. Carpenter’s Programs and Services