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Teaching Bullies a Lesson
by Sandra G. Boodman, Washington Post, June 5, 2001

Trying to prevent another Columbine, educators take aim at schoolyard intimidation. Counselor Marilyn Towsey reviewed techniques the sixth-grader could employ when classmates call her fat, tell her she smells, impugn her family or shun her. In a calm, deliberate voice, the counselor ticked off the strategies dramatized in the 20-minute video she and the girl had just finished watching: The sixth-grader could walk away, ignore her tormentors, slip a note to a teacher or look for allies among her classmates.

Visibly distracted, the 13-year-old started spinning in her swivel chair, which edged precariously close to Towsey.

"I just want to know why they make fun of me when I don't make fun of them!" the girl blurted, her face inches from the counselor's, her voice ricocheting off the painted cinder-block walls of Towsey's office.

"Well, that's an age-old question," Towsey replied, deftly steering the conversation to the subject of "boundaries" -- a concept the girl's in-your-face behavior indicated she didn't grasp.

A few years ago this counseling session would have been unimaginable at Liberty Middle School in Ashland, Va. -- or at virtually any other American school, for that matter. That was before the administration at this time-worn, red brick school, located in the middle of farmland 15 miles north of Richmond, declared war on bullying behavior. Last year Liberty, which has a racially and economically diverse student body, became one of five schools in the United States to receive a Justice Department grant to test a promising anti-bullying program that has had considerable success in Norway and other Western European countries.

The goal of the two-year program

known as Blueprints, which is administered by the University of Colorado at Boulder, is ambitious: to reduce bullying by changing the culture of a school, making it clear that such harassment will not be tolerated and that adults will actively intervene to stop it.

And while some programs put the onus on kids to "work it out," Blueprints enlists the entire school community: parents, teachers, coaches, staff from the principal to bus drivers as well as all students, not just bullies and their victims. It features a locally designed curriculum and emphasizes vigilance by teachers and other adults, who are taught to respond quickly rather than tolerating or ignoring the behavior, as is typically the case.

Officials at Liberty say they don't believe that bullying -- persistent, negative psychological or physical acts directedby a stronger student or group against a weaker one -- was worse at their school than elsewhere. A survey conducted before Blueprints was launched found that 29 percent of students said they had been bullied at school in the preceding month. A recent survey of 15,000 U.S. students conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that about 30 percent reported they recently had been perpetrators or victims or both.

"I think our problem was kind of typical," said Catherine F. Moffett, the veteran guidance counselor who persuaded the Hanover County School Board and Liberty's principal, Robert Wingfield, to let her apply for a $5,000 federal grant to implement the program.

The anti-bullying ethos now pervades life at Liberty, which houses 1,200 sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders -- 400 more than it was built to hold in 1970. Posters adorn the scuffed hallways, and special "BINT" forms -- short for Bullying Is Not Tolerated -- hang in folders accessible to students and staff who are encouraged to report incidents they witness. First period every Thursday consists of "Character Education" -- 45 minutes of informal discussions that focus squarely on bullying or related topics, such as trust and relationships. These sessions are designed to make all students feel they can confide in a sympathetic adult who will respond to their problem.

At the suggestion of students, Liberty even held a "bullying drill" -- modeled after fire and tornado drills -- to see how long it took teachers to respond to a simulated incident.

"It gave us good information on what areas of the school are harder to monitor," said Wingfield, noting that supervision in out-of-the-way corners, where bullying is more likely to occur, was intensified as a result.

"Sometimes you think, 'If I hear the word bullying one more time I'm going to scream,' " the principal acknowledged, echoing a sentiment he said was not uncommon among his staff. "But then you hear about shootings like the one in California," he said, referring to the incident last March at Santana High School in which two students were fatally shot by a 15-year-old classmate who had been relentlessly tormented.

"The thing is," Wingfield added, "Columbine changed everything."

The Legacy of Columbine

The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999 were a turning point for the nascent anti-bullying movement in American schools. Columbine was the event that made educators realize it could be dangerous to ignore a problem that officials in other countries, most notably Norway, had been actively targeting for two decades.

The murderous rampage by two trenchcoat-wearing outcasts -- who had been ceaselessly bullied by popular jocks whose harassment was tolerated by school administrators -- wasn't the first case of a bullying-related school shooting. But it grabbed public attention in a way other incidents had not.

Before the avalanche of publicity that followed Columbine, bullying had been regarded as little more than a footnote to school violence prevention programs, which focused mostly on drugs, weapons and gangs.

"Six or seven years ago, bullying prevention programs were a really hard sell," said Susan P. Limber, a psychologist with Clemson University's Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and consultant to the Blueprints program.

That's because until the past decade or so, bullying was regarded as an inevitable, if unfortunate, rite of passage. "For the longest time we just thought this was a normal part of growing up," said Dorothy Espelage, a research psychologist at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana who has published nearly a dozen studies of bullying.

Since Columbine, the traditional, benign view of bullying -- which has been seen in virtually all cultures, among both sexes, in ramshackle one-room schoolhouses, teeming urban middle schools and elite prep schools -- has been supplanted by a recognition that the behavior can have lasting, even devastating, consequences for the bullied and for bullies.

But reducing bullying means confronting deeply ingrained cultural expectations. "I really think a lot of people believe that bullying toughens kids and that if they learn to handle it they'll be better competitors," said Kevin Dwyer, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

There's no evidence that this is true, Dwyer noted, and plenty to suggest that bullying can inflict serious psychological harm.

Every day, according to the school psychologists association, 160,000 American youths skip school fearing they will be the targets of bullies. Studies have found that children identified as bullies or as victims at age 8 were still identified as such at 16, and both groups had more emotional problems than other students. Bullied students have higher rates of depression, which persist into adulthood. Sixty percent of boys identified as bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by age 24, while 40 percent had three or more convictions.

Although few students who are bullied take a gun to school and kill their classmates, a recent study funded by the U.S. Secret Service found that two-thirds of the 41 youths involved in school shootings since 1974 said they had been bullied at school and that revenge was one of their motives. In a number of cases, the Secret Service study noted, "attackers described experiences of being bullied in terms that approached torment . . . of [being the victims of] behaviors that, if they occurred in the workplace, would meet the legal definitions of harassment."

Two of the most recent school shootings certainly fit that pattern. Charles Andrew Williams, 15, who is charged with killing two classmates March 5 at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., was incessantly ridiculed by bigger classmates who called him "faggot" and pressed their hot metal cigarette lighters against his neck. Two days later and 3,000 miles away in Williamsport, Pa., 14-year-old Elizabeth Catherine Bush shot in the shoulder a classmate she identified as her chief tormentor, the 13-year-old cheerleading co-captain, during lunch period at Bishop Neumann High School. Bush's parents had transferred her to the small Catholic school after she had been literally stoned by classmates at a public school who barked when they saw her.

Norwegian Approach

Although bullying has been grist for fiction and memoir for generations, it wasn't taken seriously by most research psychologists until the 1980s, when a national tragedy unfolded in Norway.

In 1982 three young boys, all victims of severe bullying at school, committed suicide within a few months of each other in different parts of the country. The deaths galvanized Norway; one of the results of the national soul-searching was a commitment to end, or at least reduce, bullying in Norwegian schools.

Out of that came a series of studies and a comprehensive program devised by Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen. Olweus's anti-bullying program, which has been replicated in other countries, remains the model for many efforts around the world, including Blueprints.

In the 1990s, when Justice Department officials were searching for programs that reduced school violence, they became interested in Olweus's approach -- which achieved a 50 percent reduction in bullying in Norway over a period of several years, as well as unexpected and dramatic declines in truan\cy, vandalism and other problems.

"It's embarrassing how far behind the U.S. is," said Illinois' Espelage, who like most researchers believes bullying behavior can be reduced but not eliminated. "The reality is that what we study is what's being funded."

While a growing number of schools are cracking down on bullying, researchers worry that many are turning to dubious and untested approaches or harsh zero-tolerance policies that are more punitive than educational. "Bullying is suddenly hot, and consultants are coming out of the woodwork," said Nancy Mullin-Rindler, director of the Project on Teasing and Bullying at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and project director for the Massachusetts anti-bullying program, modeled after Olweus's.

"Dealing with bullying is like dealing with all kinds of behavior," she added. "It's complicated and it has to be sustained over time, and that's a very hard thing for schools to do. It's not a matter of putting slogans around the school or holding a quickie assembly that says, 'We care.' "

Even the Olweus approach has undergone little independent evaluation in the United States, and some experts, Espelage among them, question whether a program developed in Norway will be effective in this country. The results of a pilot test conducted several years ago in rural South Carolina have not yet been published. Limber, the project director, said that there was 20 percent less bullying in middle schools that adopted the program, but that those reductions were not sustained over time, as they were in Norway.

One of the biggest obstacles to reducing bullying may be the commitment required of a school in an era when teachers are being pressured to concentrate on standardized tests. "Teachers sometimes look at this as one more thing they have to do," Mullin-Rindler noted.

At Liberty, many, but not all, teachers say they are committed to carrying out the program, which emphasizes re-education over punishment. One of the cornerstones of the experiment is teaching bystanders, who are often fearful of becoming targets themselves, to become involved, either by speaking up in defense of the victim, enlisting the aid of an adult or refusing to participate in rumor-spreading.

"If there's no one to listen, you can't spread a rumor," Marilyn Towsey told a sixth-grade class recently. "And one of the major things that cause conflict in schools is rumor."

Bullying infractions at Liberty are met with a graduated series of sanctions: The first offense results in a note in a student's file and a warning that teachers will be watching closely for recurrences. After a second infraction a student must sign a behavioral contract pledging not to bully others. The third offense requires parental notification and individual "re-education" counseling. School officials say this has happened only once.

Fistfights Drop, Bullying Persists

There are signs the program is having an impact at Liberty. Since its inception a year ago, fistfights have declined 90 percent, according to Wingfield. But he acknowledged that bullying remains a problem. "The subtle interactions are always going to be more difficult to monitor," said the principal, an enthusiastic supporter of the program.

While teachers are trained not to ignore bullying, they are also expected to reward exemplary behavior in the hope of fostering more. Students who are "caught doing good" -- such as standing up for a victim or being kind to an unpopular classmate -- receive praise in the form of blue cards, and a laudatory note is sent home to their parents. Sixth-grade teacher Terry Williams said she recently bestowed blue cards on three girls who invited a boy who frequently is ostracized to join their work group.

Liberty students say they believe the program has reduced bullying, but that harassment persists because some teachers continue to tolerate it.

"I think guys are almost expected to bully each other," said Edmund Massie, an engaging eighth-grader who said he has been harassed because he is short and because he excels academically. His father, he noted, had advised him to fight back and "take the guy out" -- advice Massie ignored.

Massie's mother is supportive of the program and said she believes it has improved the atmosphere at the middle school her two older daughters also attended. "The teachers and administration have really bought into this," Ellen Massie said. "I feel like I could go in there and get something done. We don't just have to sit back and say, 'Well, that's the way kids are.' "

But the challenge for anti-bullying programs is helping kids who just don't get it, students who seem impervious to the messages and techniques that are the subject of assemblies and drama workshops and discussion groups.

Take the sixth-grader with whom Towsey has spent months working. She exemplifies a small group of victims who are known as provocative rather than passive. She screams at other kids or invades their space or talks too loudly; sometimes she smells. Her peers alternate between avoiding her and taunting her; many of her teachers also find her irritating. When someone says something mean to her, she lashes out verbally and sometimes physically; she was referred for individual counseling after smacking a boy who insulted her father.

Her home life is chaotic, according to school officials, and the girl said she takes a high dose of Ritalin to treat a severe case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

While she enjoys the attention of the program's individual counseling, she seems oblivious to basic social norms and the effect her behavior has on other people. She can parrot the lessons of bullying workshops, but she can't implement them.

"She can't read social cues, she isn't doing well academically, she's big for her age and she has few friends," Towsey observed. "It's been a tough thing, trying to figure out a solution."


Several Web sites contain information about bullying, including tips for coping, descriptions of school-based programs and suggested reading for kids and adults.

•The National Parent-Teacher Association

• The Committee for Children, a Seattle-based group that sponsors Steps to Respect, a bully prevention program

The Blueprints Bullying Prevention Program

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