Q: What is school bullying?
A: School bullying can be described as a situation in which one or more students (the 'bullies') single out a child (the 'victim') and engage in behaviors intended to harm that child. A bully will frequently target the same victim repeatedly over time. A child who bullies can dominate the victim because the bully possesses more power than the victim. Compared to his or her victim, for example, the bully may be physically stronger or more intelligent, have a larger circle of friends, or possess a higher social standing. Bullying can inflict physical harm, emotional distress, and / or social embarrassment or humiliation.

Q: What conditions allow bullying to take place?
A: There are three essential components to any bullying situation. To start with, there must be a bully: an individual who voluntarily seeks out and attempts to victimize others. Another participant necessary for bullying to take place is a potential victim: a student who is substantially weaker than the bully in one or more significant ways. Bullying cannot happen, of course, unless there is also a location in which it can occur. School locations where bullying is common are often those with limited adult supervision, such as hallways, bathrooms, and playgrounds.

Q: What are the characteristics of a child who is victimized by bullies?
A: There is no single descriptive profile to help schools to identify those students who are at risk for being targeted by bullies. One important indicator, though, is the presence or absence of friends in a child's life. Children who are socially isolated are easier targets for bullies because they lack a friendship network to back them up and support them against a bully's attacks. A second factor that can predispose a child to be victimized is age. Older children often bully younger children.

There are also two subgroups of bully victims that to present a clearer profile: passive victims and provocative victims. Passive victims may be physically weaker than most classmates, avoid violence and physical horseplay, and be somewhat more anxious than their peers. Lacking friends, these children are an easy target for bullying. Provocative victims may be both anxious and aggressive. They may also have poor social skills and thus tend to irritate or alienate their classmates. Bullies often take pleasure in provoking these provocative victims into an outburst through taunts or teasing, then sit back and watch as the teacher reprimands or punishes the victim for disrupting the class.

Q: What can schools do to stop bullying?
A: All segments of the school community must work together to address the problem of bullying. This means that teachers, administrators, parents, and students need to cooperate as they assess the scope of the bullying problem in their school and come up with ways to respond to it effectively. While every school will adopt an approach to bully prevention that meets its unique needs, all schools would benefit from the following guidelines (Batsche & Knoff, 1994):

  • Conduct a thorough building-wide assessment to uncover the extent that bullying is a problem in your school. Use multiple methods to collect information. Consider administering staff surveys and anonymous student surveys, facilitating student and parent focus groups on the topic of bullying, analyzing the pattern of student disciplinary referrals to see if bullying patterns emerge, have adults observe and record bullying behaviors in less-supervised settings such as the cafeteria and on the playground, etc. Pool this information to identify significant patterns of bullying (for example, where and when bullying happens to occur most frequently; which students appear to engage in bullying behavior and which are victimized by bullies, etc.)
  • Reach consensus as a staff about how your school defines bullying and when educators should intervene to prevent bullying from occurring. Rates of school bullying drop significantly when all staff members are able to identify the signs of bullying and agree to intervene consistently whenever they observe unsafe, disrespectful, or hurtful behaviors.
  • Compile a 'menu' of appropriate consequences that educators can impose on students who bully. This menu should include lesser consequences that might be given for minor acts of bullying (e.g., mild teasing) and more stringent consequences for more serious or chronic bullying (e.g., inflicting physical harm, harassing a victim for weeks). Train staff to use the consequences-menu to ensure fairness and consistency when they intervene with bullies.
  • Establish a policy for contacting the parent(s) of a student who has engaged in bullying. At the parent conference, school staff should attempt to enlist the parent to work with them to stop the student's bullying. If the parent denies that a problem exists or refuses to cooperate to end the child's bullying behavior, the parent should be told clearly that the school will monitor the child's behavior closely and will take appropriate disciplinary steps if future bullying incidents occur.
  • Monitor the school's bully-prevention efforts on an ongoing basis to see if they have in fact reduced the amount of bullying among students and improved the emotional climate of the building. The school can use the same monitoring methods to track progress in bully-prevention as were first used to assess the initial seriousness of the bullying problem (e.g., focus groups, surveys, direct observation, tracking of disciplinary referrals). Share these results periodically in the form of a 'progress report' with school staff, parents, and students to build motivation throughout the school community for your building's bully-prevention initiative.