Editor's Note: Every day, I ask our kids what they did during the day. If you have ever asked a kid this question, you know the standard response comes in one of two forms:
“I don’t know.”
It feels impossible that someone could spend so much time in one place where literally nothing happens. Sometimes I get lucky and hear about a science project or something someone said to someone else about something hilarious that happened in class. Then there are days like the day they first come home and tell you about how their teacher “closed the door and we hid behind desks in case a bad guy ever comes into school.” Or the day they ask you, out of nowhere, as you’re clearing the dishes from the dinner table, “Mom, did anyone ever bully you when you were little?”
In 2014, 15 percent of third-graders reported they were frequently teased, made fun of, or called names by other students. In 2015, about 21 percent of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. About 34 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students in grades 9-12 reported they had been bullied on school property during the last year compared to 19 percent of heterosexual students.
Working at the University of Oregon, we are surrounded by colleagues conducting research related to every aspect of a school day; school safety is no exception. In the chapter, “Building Safe and Healthy Schools to Promote School Success” , Drs. Jeffrey Sprague and Hill Walker explore trends in school violence and prevention and offer strategies for making schools safer spaces. They recognize no school can be 100 percent safe; it’s likely somewhere on a continuum between risk and protective factors. As I read their chapter, there was one sentence that stood out:
“Educators are inundated with advice regarding effective school safety interventions, but receive scant help in integrating and sustaining effective practices.”
We asked Dr. Jeffrey Sprague to share his thoughts about how schools can identify safety concerns in their buildings - especially behaviors like bullying and harassment - and offer some practical strategies to start creating more positive social cultures.
The Challenge of School Violence: How Can We Respond to Create Safe and Healthy Schools?
Creating and maintaining a safe and healthy school environment, one where all students are free from violence, is important to everyone. Though extremely rare, mass school shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary and Parkland High School heighten and intensify our fears and concerns. We search for the most reliable information available, trying to find ways to make schools safer and more conducive to learning. The sheer volume of information coming through every outlet is overwhelming.
Federally issued reports and annual profiles provide a detailed picture of school safety and school climate. These reports highlight real and potential risks to school safety. Official statistics paint a picture less grim than the news might have you think. Since 1990, there have been 22 shootings at elementary and secondary schools in which two or more people were killed, not counting those perpetrators who committed suicide. Even though the number of students killed at school each year has been relatively stable since the 1990s, this statistic does little to comfort anyone who works in a school or sends family members there each day. Losing one child in this manner is unacceptable. While we cannot guarantee a violent incident will never occur at our school or in our community, there are measures we can take to reduce the probability.
All students should perceive themselves as accepted and valued members of the school’s population, fully able to participate in the extracurricular activities of the school, and free from bullying, mean-spirited teasing, discrimination, or harassment. Transforming the destructive peer culture of bullying and harassment is perhaps our most formidable task regarding school safety and discipline. We can reduce the influence of this risk factor through systematic prevention and response approaches.
The overt, painful, and intimidating types of bullying behaviors tend to be more characteristic of boys than girls. They occur in school settings where there is limited adult supervision and monitoring to prevent them. Subtler, more covert bullying behaviors are more often seen in girls. They engage in something known as relational (or social) aggression. It is less obvious in nature and can happen in any setting at basically any time. Relational aggression tends to exclude others from activities, damages reputations through backbiting, lies, and rumors, tries to ruin existing friendships through alienation, and engages in social manipulation and discrimination of others. In the past, bullying types – overt and relational – were divided among gender lines. Today, this division seems to be blurring in society, especially in schools. Both types of bullying and harassment are damaging to the victim and, because long-term social and academic outcomes for bullies are so negative, the perpetrators, as well.
No matter our experiences or background growing up, many of us can remember times in childhood where we were picked on, made fun of in front of peers, humiliated in some way, threatened, or intimidated. I was a tall boy with a “smart” label. I was targeted by older, larger students. I remember particularly one of my classmates who seemed bent on making me suffer daily. It felt like the adults in my school didn’t seem to notice or care. No one ever talked to us about bullying, how to report it, or what to do about it. Maybe they just thought it was normal. One thing is clear, if we do nothing bullying will survive and thrive in our schools where victims are routinely paired with bullies because they simply attend school together! Even if the effects from implementing an evidence-based program are moderate at best, if we can reduce bullying in our schools, isn’t it worth it?
"Educators are inundated with advice regarding effective school safety interventions, but receive scant help in integrating and sustaining effective practices.”
So, where do we start?
As an educator, see if you can answer the following questions:
- Does your school have a school-wide program to teach pro-social skills to all students? (PBIS, Bullyproofing, or Expect Respect)
- To what extent is socially aggressive behavior, bullying and harassment a problem in your school? How do you know? How often do you ask students about their experiences?
- Does your school or school district have a specific policy about bullying and harassment? If so, what does it require you to do?
- What is your response if a student reports a bullying incident to you? What should you say to the student? What information do you need to collect?
- How do you report bullying behavior? What if the bullying behavior came from a parent?
- Do students know how to respond to a bullying incident when they are the victim or a witness?
- How do we respond when the student who bullies won’t stop?
How did you do?
If you didn’t know the answer to some or all of these questions, check with your building’s administrator and your PBIS leadership team. I encourage you to talk with your students, parents and colleagues about these questions, and adopt approaches that are based in scientific evidence. Here are a few ways to start assessing how deep an issue bullying and harassment is in your school:
- Regularly review your SWIS data looking for patterns of bullying and harassment. When does it happen? Where does it happen? Who is most likely to contribute? Why does it continue to happen? Summarize those reports and share them with stakeholders at least monthly.
- Ask students to take the School Climate Survey. Results will give you a better idea of how safe they feel when they’re at school.
- A yearly assessment like the School Safety Survey includes items specifically related to bullying and harassment among other intimidating behaviors. There are spaces provided for anyone responding to write about their concerns and experiences. Use this assessment to guide your implementation efforts. Establish goals for improving those risk factors and monitor your progress.
- Incorporate into your daily class check-ins a way to ask students about how they’re doing. Use the time to gather impressions about climate. While this isn’t a hard source of data, embedding these questions into your daily routines reminds students that adults in their school are concerned about their safety.
This work to make schools safer is complex, but worthy of consistent, daily effort to protect our students. If we are consistent and systematic, we can promote empathy, encourage friendship-building and teach everyone how to recognize, respond to, and report bullying when they see it.
Dr. Jeffrey Sprague
Dr. Jeffrey Sprague is a Professor of Special Education and Director of the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior. His research activities encompass applied behavior analysis, positive behavior supports, behavioral response to intervention, functional behavioral assessment, implementation science, school safety, youth violence prevention, and juvenile delinquency prevention. Jeff is a native Oregonian, husband, and father. He enjoys cycling, running, fly fishing, and playing guitar.