The fastest way to thwart school bullies, experts say, starts and stops with students.
Advocates are lauding new attempts by schools to reform reporting policies by making it easier to inform administrators about instances of bullying – measures that put the students in control of the problem.
“Students are the ones who are going to get the bullying to stop because they see it more than the teachers do, than social workers do, than administrations, parents and whatnot,” said Cjay Harmer, a bullying prevention specialist at Pioneer Center for Human Services.
That is not to say school officials are taking a backseat.
Huntley High School Principal Scott Rowe said rather than targeting bullying with discipline after it happens, it’s important for students to feel empowered to speak up and divert bullying when they see it taking place.
“Bystanders play a large role,” Rowe said. “By not doing something, you’re empowering the bullies.
“It can’t all be done at the school level,” he added. “It has to be homegrown, it has to be the students helping students [coupled with] the school’s approach.”
It’s important for both students and parents to understand what bullying is, but more importantly, what it isn’t.
Researchers define bullying as a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power and purposefully inflicts hardship or harm on those who are bullied. The key word here is repeated. Just one instance of conflict, is not bullying, experts say.
Social media continue to drive most bullying problems – its popularity as a platform for bullies is marked by distance.
“Cyberbullying is a concern because you can’t get away from it,” District 200’s Drug-Free Project coordinator Laura Crain said. “That immediacy and not having to face someone when you say it. When I was growing up, it was said to your face. Now you can directly attack someone and still not look them in the eyes.”
Huntley School District 158 and Carpentersville-based District 300 each has an anonymous tip line and web page link to report bullying.
The districts’ bullying reporting form allows parents and students to describe the incident, where it occurred and for how long it’s been going on. Names of victims and the bullies are optional, but District 300’s Safety Officer Gary Chester says the more information, the better.
But, critics of anonymous reporting fear it could lead to reverse bullying and false claims.
“Schools tend to know what’s happening, and these tips that are given to them, I think, are more of – where there’s smoke there’s fire,” Harmer said. “… If someone files one, two, five false claims, but if we do get to one and help that one student, then it’s worth it.”
Peer groups also are emerging as powerful tools to combat bullying.
District 200’s Choose Respect is a team of high school students that once a year conduct an all-day seminar with middle school students. Not only do they discuss bullying, but also at-risk behaviors in other relationships, such as those with a significant other, said Crain, who also is the group’s leader.
In the past year, they’ve been asked to help other schools start similar programs, Crain said.
“As much as I want to think I’m a cool adult, I’m not,” Crain said. “When it comes to being in elementary or middle school, hearing from kids who’ve just been through it or [students] to look up to, that message is stronger.”