Reality Check: Do Bullying Prevention Programs Work?

After years of school programs against bullying, here's what we know now that we didn't know before.

Do Bullying Prevention Programs Work?

Anti-bullying posters without an ongoing program to accompany them are one prevention approach that's proved ineffective. (Photo: Patrick Herrera/Getty Images)

A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

On Oct. 20, fifteen-year-old Jordan Lewis, who according to his family had been bullied by classmates, returned home after watching an anti-bullying video at school and took his own life. His father later argued that the video his son was shown, which depicted a bullied victim choosing to commit suicide, only encouraged his son to do the same. 

The high school student's death prompted the most recent round of arguments over the efficacy of bullying prevention programs in schools, which grew in popularity through the 2000s. Those debates were further fueled by a University of Texas at Arlington study published in the October issue of the Journal of Criminology. It found that of 195 schools surveyed, students who attended schools with anti-bullying programs were 1.2 times more likely to be targets of peer harassment than those who attended schools without such programs.

Deborah Temkin is a bullying prevention manager with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, an international human rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. She says the University of Texas study needs to be looked at more closely. "The researchers' conclusions at the end of that study were not well supported by their data," she says. 

In an article Temkin wrote for The Huffington Post, she argued that Arlington researchers didn't evaluate any particular program—and there are many varieties. Instead, they simply asked school administrators whether or not they had an anti-bullying program and then compared those answers with incidents of reported peer harassment at those schools. So educators who replied affirmatively could have been referring to any number of initiatives, including those known to be ineffective long-term, such as a onetime school assembly or an instance of displaying posters against bullying without a complementary ongoing program.

In addition to the models known to have no discernible effect on school climate, there are those that come with unintended consequences. Zero-tolerance policies, which suspend or expel bullies, usually under a "three strikes" rule, haven't been shown to reduce bullying behavior. Instead, according to an evidentiary review by the American Psychological Association, those policies appear to lead to higher rates of student misbehavior and also correlate to higher rates of student anxiety, alienation, and distrust of adults. 

Peer mediation, which treats bullying as a "conflict" instead of a form of abuse and asks the perpetrator and the victim to share blame, has also proved problematic. Stopbullying.gov, an online resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that having to face a perpetrator in a mediation session can provoke further feelings of upset for bullied kids. 

Instead of asking, "Do anti-bullying programs work?" perhaps a better question is "Which anti-bullying programs are proven to work, and how can we know which is right for our school?"

According to a U.S. Department of Education report released in 2011, only 8 percent of anti-bullying programs implemented in U.S. schools are evidence-based. 

One of those is the Olweus Bully Prevention Program, a long-term, multi-level plan that addresses students, teachers, parents, and surrounding communities. Backed by several decades of research, its design is formatted for grades K–12 and has been implemented in thousands of U.S. schools. 

The Olweus program is extensive in its scope. Included in its basic guidelines are rules meant to engender empathy and advocacy in students. Children are taught to include bullied or isolated classmates in conversations and activities whenever possible. When a classmate is being targeted, students are told to notify an adult at home and an adult at school. Educators are taught to apply nonphysical, non-hostile, negative consequences for students who violate school rules. They also run weekly class meetings to discuss and role-play nonaggressive actions that bystanders can take to help bullied kids. 

However, even bullying-prevention courses like Olweus that are evidence-based, with successful track records, do not flourish at all the schools where they are applied. "Every school is going to have a different population of students, and every school is going to have different issues it needs to work on," Temkin says. "So we can't simply prescribe a simple solution that's going to work for every school."

Temkin recommends each school take the time to collect data, through surveys and student focus groups, to discern what issues in its culture need to be addressed. The initiative she spearheads, Project SEATBELT (Safe Environments Achieved Through Bullying Prevention, Engagement, Leadership, and Teaching Respect), partners with the Safe School Certification Program to help school administrators collect that data and use it to choose and implement whichever long-term program will best meet their needs. 

Discovering which evidence-based model will be most effective for a school can be a lengthy process, but Temkin says it's crucial for kids. "When we say [bullying] is 'just kids being kids,' we forget about the real impacts that studies show can actually result from bullying," she says. Those can include lower academic achievement, truancy, and more serious outcomes of extreme retaliation or suicide. "There's usually multiple factors that go into those more extreme outcomes," Temkin explains, "but bullying is definitely a factor, and we have to recognize that." 

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