Bullying is now recognized as a common form of victimization on American school campuses and a significant school safety problem (Nansel et al., 2001). This special issue of School Psychology Review provides thoughtful conceptual and practical information for school psychologists, who can play a central role in the schools' response to this growing concern about school bullying. In this reaction article, we review and expand on topics discussed, particularly as they relate to the American school context. Reaching a national consensus on school bullying represents a significant challenge that will require balancing needs across researchers, educators, and public policy makers. Whatever the effectiveness of specific bully prevention programs, the national effort to minimize the negative effects of bullying will need to address fundamental matters related to the definition of school bullying and the translation of best research practices into public policy and educational practice at the school site level. We suggest that clarity on matters of definition is of the utmost importance. First, it is needed for the scientific purpose of having precision in what is being studied. Second, it is needed because a lack of a common understanding about what constitutes bullying could result in a confusing array of national, state, and local policies and responses to the problems created by bullying.
Contributions of Special Issue Articles Espelage and Swearer
Espelage and Swearer (2003) set the stage for other contributors to this volume with their thorough review of bullying literature. They effectively argue that bullying research has reached a critical stage where future investigations should capitalize on the lessons learned about the definition and measurement of bullying, the nature of gender differences, and the varied topography of the bully-victim relationship. They set forward the challenge of how best to define and measure bullying; the extent of that challenge was demonstrated by the varied definitions and methods of articles in this special issue. Perhaps most important is the vision that pushes researchers in this area to recognize the importance of contexts; for example, familial, peer, school structures as determinants, correlates, and perpetuators of bullying behavior. Whereas improved definitions and measurements of bullying will help define the individual behavior, determining the contextual influences will require careful and creative research methodologies.
Rodkin and Hodges
Rodkin and Hodges (2003) frame their discussion of bullying in the context of peer ecology and school culture. In particular, their emphasis on identifying and understanding "popular bullies" takes an important step toward the recognition that not all bullies fit the profile of children who are socially marginalized or deviant. Rodkin and Hodges's article discusses a type of bully who is well-liked among his or her peer group and is thus better able to attract others to engage in their bullying behaviors. These discussions emphasize the complex influence of peer ecology, the diversity of children who engage in bullying, and varying motivations and functions that bullying may serve. Although there are many popular students in school, only a select few use their popularity as a platform for bullying other students. One question that emerges from Rodkin and Hodges's article is why some popular students take advantage of the opportunity to bully, but most do not.
Long and Pellegrini
Long and Pellegrini (2003) add an additional perspective to this bullying issue (i.e., focus on the dynamism or long-term nature of bullying and dominance). Researchers are often constrained by their research designs and methodologies to characterizing bullying through the use of static, one-time measures. As Espelage and Swearer have noted, an important aspect of bullying is the fact that is occurs repeatedly over a long period of time. Long and Pellegrini suggest that observing or measuring this concept across several years will provide an important perspective about the role of dominance and bullying in group behavior of students in a middle school cohort. They hypothesized that dominance would increase during a time when groups are being formed and then settle once the relationships have been established. These authors demonstrated the use of linear mixed models to track measures of dominance and bullying over time and to determine the conditional effects of gender on change on these concepts. They clearly outline the complex statistical techniques utilized, thereby encouraging the use of such models for future research. Their findings confirmed a pattern of increase, then decrease across time. However, their findings suggested a slight increase for seventh grade students at the end of their school year, perhaps anticipating the need to reestablish relationships in the transition to eighth grade. Overall, dominance and bullying were higher for males. As with other studies in this issue, these results, although demonstrative of the potential utility of change models for explaining bullying, are constrained by the definition of bullying because they relied on student self-definition of "bullying" behavior. It is very likely that students varied in their conception of "bullying." Future investigations might include a specific descriptor for this term to ensure that survey responses are valid.
Leff, Power, Costigan, and Manz
Although much research on bullying has focused on assessment and prevention at the classroom level, the playground and lunchroom are also prime locations for bullying to occur. Left, Power, Costigan, and Manz (2003) explain that bullying often occurs in these settings because of a lack of structured activities and a lack of structured supervision. Left et al. evaluate an assessment tool that is designed for completion by paraprofessionals supervising during lunch and recess. This approach is one that accounts for the context in which bullying often occurs and the school ecology that can contribute to its prevention. Although the data from this study fail to provide information on instances of bullying that occur within the lunchroom and playground contexts, accurate assessment of the school climate in these areas will presumably enhance the school's ability to develop targeted interventions. As there is no definition of bullying provided in this article, future efforts should examine the extent to which changes in lunchroom and playground climate are expected to influence bullying behaviors, separate and distinct from generally reducing student aggression.
Orpinas, Horne, and Staniszewski
Developing empirically validated programs that effectively reduce school bullying is a challenge that many schools face. Orpinas, Home, and Staniszewski (2003) describe the development and evaluation of an innovative program designed to reduce bullying and victimization at the elementary school level. The program discussed is notable for its ability to garner commitment and cooperation from many members of the school community, specifically teachers. The authors identify staff collaboration, in conjunction with the comprehensive approach of the program, as the heart of its success. Although this program is effective at reducing aggression, as it is measured by the study's self-report questionnaire, the program and the assessments used to evaluate the program do not target bullying independently from other forms of peer aggression. The program appears to successfully reduce aggressive behavior, but it is unclear how much of this behavior meets criteria for the hallmarks of bullying: intentionality, power imbalance, and repetition. The commitment and motivation of the school staff participant that was engendered by this approach is admirable and would certainly contribute to a program with the specific aim of reducing bullying behavior, as well.
Limber and Small
Several state legislatures have enacted laws related to bullying in an attempt to address the perception that bullying is a growing problem in American schools. Limber and Small (2003) review the state laws that have been passed and some of the major issues surrounding bullying legislation. In particular, they note a trend towards defining bullying in conjunction with other types of peer aggression, such as "harassment" or "intimidation." By considering these terms as synonymous, Limber and Small suggest that states fail to capture the unique qualities of bullying, potentially resulting in school personnel being confused or misled. Limber and Small offer several recommendations for state legislators, state departments of education, and local policy makers seeking to develop sensitive and appropriate bullying laws. Limber and Small's focus on legislation recognizes the most formalized approach to bullying--one that may mandate state resources. This raises the question: What else are states doing to prevent and intervene with bullying that has not been formalized into legislation? The way that bullying is addressed in schools, by school districts, and by state departments of education is often not reflected in their state laws. In addition, only 15 states have passed legislation, leading to the question of what is happening in the other 35 states.
Implications of Special Issue Articles for School Psychology Practice
The topic of bullying in American schools was neglected for too long (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). This issue affirms the crucial roles that school psychology researchers and practitioners can contribute to future efforts to better understand this phenomenon and to develop evidence-based strategies designed to reduce its incidence and consequences. We suggest that these efforts will move forward most efficiently and effectively if thought is given to carefully defining bullying and to building a national consensus about the nature of this problem. In an effort to be better informed about the actions being taken in the 50 United States to reduce bullying and to build on Limber and Small's (2003) efforts, we turn to a presentation of state-level responses to bullying.
The Status of School Bullying Policy and Practice in the United States
The analysis of forensic psychologists McGee and Debemardo (1999) helped to popularize the idea that school shooters are awkward adolescents who had past histories of bully victimization and social isolation. Amidst the national angst after the multiple school shootings in the late 1990s, the notion that these youth had been victimized to the point of extreme violence was offered as one explanation for these terrible events. Subsequent analyses (Fein et al., 2002; O'Toole, 2000; Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002) have shown this to be a qualified and limited relationship, but they also reinforced the perception that at least some school shooters were bully-victims who acted to avenge long-term peer abuse. Although bully victimization cannot be used with any degree of accuracy to predict school shootings (Reddy et al., 2001), one potentially positive response to the recognition of this phenomenon is that it modified perceptions that bullying was a relatively innocent rite of youth passage. Instead, bullying is now seen as one set of behaviors that might have deadly consequences.
Legislative Responses to School Violence
Interestingly, as mentioned by Espelage and Swearer (2003), the motivation to address bullying in Finland (Dan Olweus's home) emanated from concern about suicides among bully victims. Similarly, in response to American school shooting tragedies (many of the school shooters also were suicidal), educators and policy makers began to take action (e.g., California Governor's School Violence Task Force, 2000). After years of neglecting the bullying phenomenon, beginning in 1998, states began to pass laws using the term "bullying."
To examine state-level legislative responses to school bullying, we looked at the association between bullying law status and school-death incidents for the 50 states. Figure 1 shows the state-level legislative responses to school bullying cross-coded for the location of school-associated deaths. Incidences of school-associated violent deaths included in Figure 1 were obtained from the National School Safety Center's (NSSC) Report on School Associated Violent Deaths (2003). The NSSC list was derived from newspaper clippings and mailings that the center has gathered from 1992 onward. Figure 1 includes incidents reported from January 1995 to June 2003. Incidents were selected if the NSSC list identified that the perpetrator of the violent death was an individual aged 19 or younger. Accidental deaths of school personnel or law enforcement agents who were involved in breaking up fights (e.g., from a heart attack after the event) were not included in the figure. Incidences of suicide (S), incidents that occurred off school campus, but were still school related (O), and incidents that targeted an adult either solely or in addition to children (*) were identified by the symbols listed in parentheses.
As might be expected, states that have experienced notable school shooting incidents are more likely to have formal school bullying laws than other states. In recent years, a number of states have passed legislation that directly mentions bullying and articulates school responses and disciplinary consequences. Limber and Small (2003) provide an overview and discussion of these legislative responses. In addition to the passage of formal educational laws, various states have responded more informally through the dissemination of resources and training. Although the prevention of school-associated deaths is an essential objective, formal legislative responses can only be as effective as the implementation of bullying prevention and intervention strategies in schools, a topic to which we now turn.
- Furlong, Michael J., Morrison, Gale M., Greif, Jennifer L., School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32, Issue 3
The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide:
What We Know and What it Means for Schools
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about American reactions to the special issue on school bullying. Write three
case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in
11 What idea about school shooters did the analysis of forensic psychologists McGee and Debemardo help to popularize? To select and enter your answer go to Test.