Key to curbing bullies is vigilance


That bullying exists in our schools is not news, nor are the effects of bullying on victims. For the past 20 years, school officials have tried to curb bullying by increasing awareness among students and helping victims assert themselves. 

These efforts have met with success, and this success points the way to the potential for success in other areas that bedevil other seemingly intractable problems in education.

According to the Minnesota Student Survey, 32 percent of sixth-graders in 1995 said they were threatened on school property. That number has steadily dropped until only 25 percent said they were threatened in 2007.

While the downward trend is good, that still means 25 percent of sixth graders feel threatened at school – a number that is far too high, said Stephanie Ochocki, a school social worker at McKinley Elementary in Ham Lake.

In fact, “given the negative effect exposure to bullying can have on a bystander, classroom, or possibly a whole school community, I would estimate 90 percent of all students are affected by bullying in some way,” she said.

Bullying can include direct and indirect actions. Examples of direct bullying would include hitting, kicking, pinching, shoving or spitting as well as using words such as name-calling or teasing. Indirect bullying includes excluding someone from a group or club, spreading rumors, cyber bullying or enlisting help to carry out bullying actions for you, Ochoki said.

Rita Krisak, school social worker at Lincoln/Piedmont Elementary in Duluth, said about five percent of the student population could be considered chronic bullies. The students who get “caught up in the moment” and bully others less than once a month number an additional 15 percent of students, she said.

Defining bullying is not cut-and-dried. It becomes more difficult when students become rebellious, said Patrick Chesla, a school social worker at Milaca Elementary. He sees more incidents of students not respecting social boundaries more because of awkward attempts to connect socially than because of bullying.  “Similar to beginners in a dance class, they keep stepping on one another’s toes,” Chesla said. “Is this bullying?  Intent to harm has a lot to do with what we are attempting to define and that is not an easy thing to get a handle on with many students.”

But getting a handle on bullying is precisely what school officials must do. Students who are bullied can develop headaches, stomach pains or sleeping problems, Ochoki said. They may be afraid to go to school, go to the lavatory or ride the school bus. They may lose interest in school, have trouble concentrating or do poorly academically. Bullied students typically lose confidence in themselves. They may experience depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.

Molly Norris, a social worker in the Mankato School District, said connection with students is important to changing a culture of bullying.  “It is imperative that we reach as many students as we can and stay connected,” she said. “It is important to start where the student and family are at so that we can build from there in a positive direction. Social workers work with kids at school, communicating with teachers about their students needs, connecting with parents and families within their home and collaboratively working with community support services so that kids and families are successful.”

The key is to create awareness of bullying, both among the perpetrators and the victims. There are a variety of in-school awareness programs available to educators to raise awareness of bullying’s effects. These programs can be conducted school-wide and provide instruction in areas such empathy, problem solving and frustration management skills.

School social workers can also work with bullies one-on-one to replace the bullying behaviors with more social appropriate ways of getting their needs met, Ochoki said.

They also work in small groups to teach social and emotional skills. Students learn to be assertive, have good self esteem, learn coping skills and communication skills, learn to listen, how to reduce stress, improve self regulation and improve their friendship skills. These groups are usually 30 minutes with four to six students in each group. 

Not only can these skills be used to combat bullying, but “these groups also gives the potential bully the ability to feel better about themselves, build their self esteem and hopefully give them the tools to interact with their peers in a more positive way, Norris said.

The scope of the anti-bullying effort is vast. In Mankato, for example, Norris said the school sets classroom expectations and behavior plans, then grade level reward-consequence plans, then a school-wide behavior plan that includes information sharing with parents and administration, and convening a  School Climate Committee that meets twice each month to analyze trends in the school’s behavioral data.

Bullying is a problem with no specific cause and no specific solution – one of many such problems facing educators today. That’s why the effort to curb bullying provides us with an example of what can be done against seemingly intractable problems such as the achievement gap, stalling the dropout rate, raising the number of students who can read and write and finding the money to fund schools fully and equitably.

These problems need everyone pulling in the same direction with the same goals in mind. Quick fixes or glib seminars won’t solve the problem – only hard work and attention to detail over many, many years will improve Minnesota’s education system. Don’t look for immediate results, but the results will come.

But a look at the anti-bullying efforts shows us that such goals can be met. And that is a good thing.