Putting a Stop to Bullying in Schools

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Last week marked the 9th annual National No Name-Calling Week, a national effort to call attention to hurtful words and bullying in schools. We checked in with Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to see how it went.

No Name-Calling Week website homepage

No Name-Calling Week website

How did this year’s No Name-Calling Week go?

Eliza Byard: There’s been a lot of buzz around this year’s No Name-Calling Week. Events and programs related to No Name-Calling Week took place in thousands of schools across the country in communities like Kewanee, Illinois; Fort Scott, Kansas; Asheville, North Carolina and Mandeville, Lousiana. Massachusetts went a step further and Governor Deval Patrick designated last Wednesday as “No Name-Calling Day” in the state. We also witnessed an interesting development with the Boy Scouts of America endorsing the event despite the organization continuing its anti-LGBT policies.

We notice that No-Name-Calling Week doesn’t focus on hurtful language against LGBT students in particular. Given GLSEN’s focus, why was this decision made?

Byard: As an education organization, GLSEN remains concerned about the effects of all kinds of biased remarks frequently heard in a classroom, school hallway or cafeteria. From our research, we know that homophobic remarks such as “fag” and “dyke” are two of the top slurs directed at all students regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation. We also know that students often use the word “gay” in a negative way, such as “that’s so gay.” But we also know that other kinds of biased remarks negatively impact a student in similar ways: poorer psychological well being, poorer educational outcomes and lower educational aspirations.

Can you give us a sense of the breadth of the problem? How many kids are being bullied? What constitutes bullying?

Byard: We’ve seen considerable gains in improving school climate, but the fact remains: bullying continues to be a public health crisis in the United States. According to “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America,” a 2005 Harris Interactive report commissioned by GLSEN, 47 percent of middle/junior high school students identified bullying, name-calling or harassment as a somewhat or very serious problem at their school. And 65 percent of middle and high school students reported being verbally or physically harassed or assaulted in the previous year because of a personal characteristic like race/ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

GLSEN also knows that more overt forms of bullying and harassment do not suddenly occur in middle and high school. This January, GLSEN released “Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States.” 75 percent of elementary school students reported that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity. So we now know that our work to create safe and respectful learning environments has to include the elementary school setting. Because of GLSEN’s findings in this study, we also produced a toolkit for educators on how they can prepare themselves for teaching about respect to elementary school students. The toolkit was created in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

What’s the biggest obstacle to addressing the issue of bullying effectively?

Byard: One of GLSEN’s major points of concern is making sure that schools are prepared to effectively address bullying of all kinds. In “2009 National School Climate Survey,” we learned that nearly a third of students who were assaulted or harassed because of a personal characteristic said that school staff did nothing in response when the incident was reported. Two likely reasons behind educators’ inaction could be a lack of professional development available on the subject of bullying and/or educators being in a school without comprehensive bullying and harassment policies.

We know that when a school has comprehensive policies in place, students were more likely to report that staff intervened in incidents of bullying and harassment. We also know that when students can identify a supportive educator, a greater number of students were more likely to say they felt safe in school and felt a part of the school community. Students also reported a stronger desire to pursue their educational aspirations like attending college.

Is cyber-bullying increasing or decreasing based on recent media attention devoted to the problem? How much do you focus on cyber-bullying in relation to traditional bullying?

Byard: We’re still learning about cyber-bullying. Data collected in the past few years show that cyber-bullying is a significant problem, but students still experience traditional bullying at higher rates. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey on the experiences of LGBT students in school found nearly 9 out of 10 students (84.6%) experienced harassment at school. About half of LGBT students experienced cyber-bullying (52.9%) in the past year. The good news is that Facebook has taken steps to create a safer social networking experience and allow teenagers to report harassment. GLSEN is part of an advisory panel for the social network, and our experience has been that Facebook takes the issue very seriously.

What legislative or policy changes are happening at the local and/or national level to address bullying? What more can and should be done?

Byard: GLSEN originally convened and still leads the National Safe Schools Partners, a coalition of more than 90 education, civil rights, health, religious and youth development organizations in support of a federal anti-bullying bill called the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The bipartisan bill, which would require schools to adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies that explicitly protect students most often targeted for bullying, has considerable support in the House and Senate. Despite what to most of us see as a common-sense measure to make our schools safer, we still need help convincing additional members of Congress that bullying, which is a public health crisis in this country, is a priority and should be addressed.


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