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4-12 Bullying symposium

Bullying in the balance

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2012 Bullying Prevention Symposium

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer

A third of America’s students report being bullied at school, a statistic that Kevin Jennings, who headed the Obama administration’s anti-bullying efforts, feels is an understatement.
If witnesses to bullying and bullies themselves are included, that figure goes up to 72 percent.

“It is the exception not the rule that you are not touched by bullying at school,” Jennings, pictured at right, told the 300-plus attendees at the inaugural Statewide Bullying Prevention Symposium on March 19.
Despite that, he believes bullying is at a tipping point, shifting from the traditional view that it’s a harmless rite of passage.

Jennings said he’s hoping for a new attitude toward bullying, “where something that we once tolerated is becoming intolerable … The fact is, the only reason bullying persists is because we think we can’t change it.”

When students and teachers jointly take a strong stand against bullying, rates of bullying and aggression drop by one-third to one-half, he said. Ideally, the two groups would work together to make this happen, but he said many students think teachers and administrators aren’t good at deterring bullying.

“Kids are telling us what we’re doing right now is not effective,” said Jennings, CEO of Be the Change, a nonprofit group that creates national campaigns on pressing American issues.

But students also have to play a more active role, he said, pointing to a middle school study that showed kids can make a difference when they intervene in bullying – 57 percent of the time the bully will stop in less than 10 seconds. However, students intervene in fewer than one in five incidents.

Further, two-thirds of them don’t tell an adult when they’ve been bullied, and they get more tight-lipped the older they get. Students also  are more likely to report outright physical aggression than “relational aggression,” such as social exclusion or spreading rumors, which is harder to identify.

“That’s because when we talk to kids about bullying we’re not helping them understand the full range of bullying behaviors,” Jennings said. “We need to educate kids that you may not get shoved into a locker but you can still be a victim of bullying.”

Because many kids who are bullied are embarrassed about it, he suggested not even using that term when discussing it with them. Instead, ask them about “a laundry list of behavior” – specifics like hitting, pushing, name-calling, rather than the general “bullying.”

The No. 1 reason for bullying is physical appearance, Jennings told attendees, followed by actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender expression (masculinity or femininity) and disability, both visible and invisible. Other sources include abilities at school, race or ethnicity, economic status and religion.

What schools should do
Jennings pointed to several avenues schools can take to curb bullying, starting with training staff – certified and classified – and parents.

Districts should have a comprehensive, specific anti-bullying policy rather than a general one, he said. Kids are more likely to report bullying, teachers are more likely to intervene and the incidence of bullying more likely to go down, he said, “where the policy is specific.”

He compared it with an interstate sign that reads “Don’t speed,” rather than one setting a speed limit. Post the policy, make sure parents get a copy and repeat and practice it. The more “you can reinforce the policy, the better,” he said.

Take immediate action when bullying occurs, Jennings advised. Adults worry about what to say and fear that intervening will make the situation worse, but children say the opposite is true.

“If kids see that you’re trying, that your heart is in the right place, you can get away with anything,” he said.

Schools also should gather data about bullying – an anonymous survey is best because students are reluctant to admit to being bullied.
Teachers and other adults need to pay attention to changes in a student’s behavior or social pattern and ask him about it in case bullying is at the root, Jennings said.

Encourage students to speak up when someone is being bullied, or to tell an adult, he added. Schools also need to find ways to empower what he called “the defenders” – the types of witnesses who will actively intervene when someone is being bullied.

— The first Statewide Bullying Prevention Symposium was sponsored by KSBA, the Kentucky Center for School Safety, the Kentucky Educational Collaborative for State Agency Children and the Office of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers. For more information, click here please go to

Bullying bullet points from Kevin Jennings:

  A bully learns behavior that will get him or her in trouble as an adult – he or she is more likely to commit crime and violent crime, lose employment and generally lead an unsuccessful life, according to a British study.

•  Victims are more likely to miss school, bring weapons to school and commit suicide.

•  Neuroscience research has shown that parts of the brain that process information shut down when a child is afraid, making them physically unable to learn.

•  Boy bullies tend to be highly aggressive and overt, picking on victims who are socially backward, isolated and different from them. Girl bullies are often popular and go after other popular girls as a way of establishing or confirming their social power.

•  Having three friends is the “critical mass” of victimhood – a child having this minimum number of friends is less likely to be bullied.

•  The incidence of bullying is highest in the middle grades and tends to decrease after that.


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