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
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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