A Bully's Paradise: Hidden Halls, Dark Corners and No Supervision

Study says: Your kid's school environment can exacerbate harassment.
Empty hallways are prime spots for bullying. (Photo: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou)
Jul 20, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

It's long been common knowledge that empty stairwells, elevators and hallways are prime spots for criminal activity to takes place. And, in a school setting, these very spaces—plus remote playground spots—are usually the setting for acts of bullying or peer harassment.

Researchers Ellyn M. Dickmann (the College of Education and Professional Studies at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater) and Sheila M. Fram (The School Design and Planning Network, Inc.) set out last year to “look at how the school built environment can exacerbate bullying and peer harassment.” They focused on one anonymous elementary school west of the Mississippi. The school is over 30 years old and revealed multiple areas of concern that are congruous with schools across the nation. Dickmann, who published with Fram an article on their work in the current issue of Children, Youth and Environments, says that by interviewing teachers, examining the physical spaces and reviewing disciplinary records, they discovered that a school’s environment has much to do with encouraging bullying.

“Do spaces promote bullying and how?” Dickmann asks. “We found that there are some clear immediate things that can be taken care of in the physical space to cut down on bullying and peer harassment.”

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Most administrators these days can’t afford to build an entirely new bully-proof campus, so retrofitting a few areas in an old school can go a long way, she says. First of all those undefined areas need some light—and they need to be redefined. Turn a dark corner into a bright area for books or consistently add a teacher during passing time—anything to take away the isolation factor.

Glass panels, which would allow teachers to peer into the hallways, might be too expensive to add, but it costs nothing to ask teachers to routinely step out into those halls. “Create a new habit,” Dickmann says. “In going to various sites, the most effective anti-bullying/peer harassment environment changer I’ve seen is, during every bell, each teacher is asked to go out in to the hallways and talk and interact with students. They just have to be present. That has led to a huge reduction in bullying [in that school].”

Dickmann says administrators need to consider how “line of sight” will help cut down on bullying. If a bully is being watched by a teacher or a peer, he or she may curb nasty behavior. For instance, a wall of lockers that reach the ceiling create little hubs for bullying—a student can easily stuff another into a locker and not be seen. But, if instead, students are allotted waist-high locker pods, this opportunity is nipped. “First of all, it’s a lot harder to stuff a peer into a locker if the locker is lower in height,” she says. “It increases monitoring by peers. Visual sight is an advantage to have the bystander take the right road.”

Another area in the subject school that raised red flags for researchers was the playground. It was located a long distance away from the school, had large grassy areas and no fencing. The large grassy areas made it very difficult for teachers to monitor, and the lack of fencing allowed students to wander off. And the fact that the playground was physically far from the school left kids with the perception that the school’s rules don’t apply there. “The exterior space should be a continuation of school environment,” Dickmann says. She says that a school can combat these problems by adding organized play, containing the borders and enforcing the rules—in school and out. “We found that you get a false sense of safety if you talk about bullying in a handbook but don’t enforce discipline,” she says. “That’s hugely problematic.”

Finally, Dickmann says that the best way to improve an environment riddled with bullying is to increase the adult presence, but not in a threatening manner. For instance, she cites a school that once had problems with bullying during bus boarding now has every adult in the building hang out in the courtyard at that time. “It’s a way of creating more of a community and reducing bullying in lines for buses,” she says. “It’s not a patrol; the adults are just part of a landscape. And talk about a no-cost [environment adjustment].”

How do you think schools can reduce instances of bullying? Share your ideas in the comments.

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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