Addressing Bullying in Schools


Addressing Bullying in Schools

by Sara Schmidt-Kost

What can my kid’s school do to help stop bullying?
— Anonymous

Sara says:

First thing’s first: as a parent, please support your child if they are experiencing bullying at school. Listen to your child if they want to talk and let them know that what they are experiencing is not okay, that they are loved by you, and that their physical and mental health is most important. If necessary, consider taking them to counseling so they can talk about their feelings with a professional and develop their self-esteem and self-worth. 

Children bully for many reasons—reasons as complex and nuanced as the children themselves. Some bully for power in the social hierarchy while some bully because they are being bullied themselves. Bullying can happen for obvious reasons, like making fun of a child with glasses, but sometimes bullying happens for no reason at all. Bullying in groups of boys tends to look different than bullying in groups of girls. Bullying can occur in elementary, middle, and high school age children, and sometimes bullying even extends into adulthood.

The term “bullying” can encompass a number of different behaviors. Name-calling, purposeful ignoring, gossip, malicious rumors, backhanded compliments, and fake friendships are some examples. Bullying also includes physical and sexual harassment or assault, intimidation, threats, and other more severe behaviors.

School administration and staff have a number of different tactics to address bullying in school. At the very least, schools should require staff to directly intervene when they see bullying happening and make clear to the students that bullying behavior is not tolerated at school. Unfortunately, direct intervention like this does not address underlying causes of bullying, nor does it help in all bullying cases, such as bullying that might not be obvious to staff observing, or bullying that occurs out of sight of the teacher or online.

Administration, social workers, counselors, and behavior support staff can help provide support when direct interventions happen. Providing counseling and support for both the victim and the bully may help resolve the conflict and prevent further bullying. Counselors can change student schedules to minimize victim-bully contact. Staff can provide a safe space for students to eat lunch or a place to be during recess if bullying occurs most frequently during those times. Administration can monitor social networks for online bullying. Behavior support staff can also keep tabs on the various student social structures and friend groups and warn staff about potential bullying before such behavior occurs. 

School administration can also take steps to improve the school culture to be more positive and respectful. Having anti-bullying clubs, GSA’s, advisory programs, after-school enrichment, and other activities to foster respect and a positive school climate can help the overall cohesiveness of the student body, which can lead to the prevention of bullying. Schools can also implement zero-tolerance policies and clear consequences for bullying behavior. Having a policy and consequences in place can help staff feel more confident when they deal with bullying behaviors and also help victims feel like something actually happened when the bullying was addressed by school administrators. 

The two most common complaints I hear when I talk with students about bullying are that (1) students feel that school staff don’t intervene when they see bullying occur, and (2) if staff does intervene, students feel that there were no consequences for the bullying behavior, thus making it more likely that bullying will occur in the future. Students need to see change happen. They need to know that staff cares enough to intervene and provide strict, direct consequences for the bullying behavior. Otherwise students will not ask for help dealing with bullying behavior when they need it. 

In addition, school administration should hold trainings for staff on best practices to deal with bullying, such as how to spot bullying behavior and what to say when they intervene. Trainings should also include specific information about anti-LGBT bullying and bullying based on other characteristics like race, gender, class, religion, disability, or national origin. 

It’s also important to understand what kinds of laws and policies are in place in your state and school district. Where I teach in Minnesota, our state legislature passed the “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Law” last year, which establishes specific bullying policies that school districts statewide must implement as well as teacher training for bullying prevention. Knowing about the laws and policies can help you put pressure on your child’s school to make changes. Also, legally, if your child is experiencing physical or sexual harassment or assault, intimidation, or threats, you might consider getting law enforcement involved if the school has done nothing to prevent or intervene in the bullying.  

School administration, staff, teachers, and parents should work together to help stop bullying in schools and prevent bullying from happening in the future. There are many resources online that parents and school staff can research for ideas, lessons, and activities to address bullying. There are lots of ways schools can begin to address bullying, and the only wrong course of action is none at all.

Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently co-leads the in-school and after-school GSA groups at the middle school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.