How to Address Bullying & Other Interpersonal Issues on Your High School Campus

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s stopbullying.gov Web site defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. It can include threats, rumors, physical or verbal attacks, or exclusion from a group. And it’s increasingly a part of the school day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey, 20.1 percent of students have been bullied on school grounds within the past year; 16.2 percent say they’ve been bullied through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, Web sites or texting.

Bullying has, of course, been around forever, but the occasions for it have become more varied.

“Students have more opportunities to communicate in a negative manner to their peers because of technology,” says Kate McDonald, principal of Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, AZ, who adds that exposure to more diversity in our schools has played a role. “Sometimes it’s an issue of kids not having as much familiarity with the cultures of other students. Unfamiliarity can breed uncertainly and insecurity.”

Regardless of the source, teachers must be prepared to confront bullying during school hours.

Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

Kelly Vaillancourt is a school psychologist and the director of government relations for the Bethesda, MD–based National Association of School Psychologists. In most cases, she says, the first step to take when made aware of potential bullying is to notify the school psychologist, school counselor or another staff member best equipped to handle the situation.

“If the school does not have a protocol in place, the teacher should still reach out to the school administrator, school counselor or school psychologist to share concerns and develop a plan to address the needs of the student who is being bullied, as well as the needs of the student who is doing the bullying,” Vaillancourt suggests.

The biggest mistake teachers make is doing nothing. “When a teacher witnesses a student being bullied, turning their head or pretending not to see it is the wrong thing to do,” she say. If a parent or student comes to a teacher to report concerns, the teacher should relay them to the appropriate staff member.

“At times, school staff are too quick to dismiss allegations of bullying because they don’t see it,” says Vaillancourt. “But bullying frequently happens on the way to school, during recess, at lunch and on the way home from school when students are not under close adult supervision.”

Vaillancourt stresses the importance of having a school or district anti-bullying protocol, such as the one her organization promotes, and professional development support for teachers on the proper way to intervene.

Teachers need “clear guidance on the expectations of how to report bullying,” she says, and assurances on “how those reports will be handled.”

Talking It Through

McDonald says that teachers at her school aren’t provided with any programs or protocols structured specifically for bullying. But, she says, “we talk about it at the beginning of the year with respect to our broader conversations about your responsibilities above and beyond your content. And that is, of course, to be advocates for your students and to be very vigilant and aware of what’s happening in their lives.”

McDonald’s student body recently experienced two suicides, a month apart. She says that she and her staff examined closely any further role the school could have played in addressing the kind of stress these young people experienced that lead them to arrive at such desperate decisions.

The school launched a program aimed at helping students grow “more aware of the words that they use and also to advocate for each other,” McDonald says. “This idea that it isn’t just about you, yourself, not saying anything that might be hurtful. It’s about standing up for others if you see it done.”

Vaillancourt says schools often have ways that students and teachers can anonymously report bullying so as not to be seen as a snitch. “This also helps protect a student if they are self-reporting that they are being bullied,” she adds.

Learn What You Can

The stopbullying.gov Web site offers some practice tips on how to identify and prevent bullying, who’s at risk, who’s most likely to bully and more. It also urges teachers and administrators to know about “your obligations under your state’s anti-bullying law. Learn also about federal laws that require schools to address harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, and disabilities.”

“As the issue of bullying has gotten more attention in recent years, the reaction of some has been that kids need to ‘toughen up,’” Vaillancourt says. She stresses that bullying can cause lasting damage to both the student being bullied and the one bullying. “This is why professional development for teachers and other school staff is critical.”

Taylor Sisk is a North Carolina–based writer and editor who writes frequently on mental health issues for statewide and national outlets.

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