Bullying in Schools–US Department of Justice

The Problem of Bullying in Schools

There is new concern about school violence, and police have
assumed greater responsibility for helping school officials ensure
students’ safety. As pressure increases to place officers in schools,
police agencies must decide how best to contribute to student
safety. Will police presence on campuses most enhance safety? If
police cannot or should not be on every campus, can they make
other contributions to student safety? What are good approaches
and practices?

Perhaps more than any other school safety problem, bullying affects
students’ sense of security. The most effective ways to prevent or
lessen bullying require school administrators’ commitment and
intensive effort; police interested in increasing school safety can use
their influence to encourage schools to address the problem. This
guide provides police with information about bullying in schools,
its extent and its causes, and enables police to steer schools away
from common remedies that have proved ineffective elsewhere, and
to develop ones that will work.§

Bullying is widespread and perhaps the most underreported safety
problem on American school campuses.[1] Contrary to popular
belief, bullying occurs more often at school than on the way to and
from there. Once thought of as simply a rite of passage or relatively
harmless behavior that helps build young people’s character,
bullying is now known to have long-lasting harmful effects, for
both the victim and the bully. Bullying is often mistakenly viewed
as a narrow range of antisocial behavior confined to elementary
school recess yards. In the United States, awareness of the problem
is growing, especially with reports that in two-thirds of the recent
school shootings (for which the shooter was still alive to report),
the attackers had previously been bullied. “In those cases, the
experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating
the attacker.”[2],§§

§Why should police care about a safety
problem when others, such as school
administrators, are better equipped
to address it? One can find numerous
examples of safety problems regarding
which the most promising part of the
police role is to raise awareness and
engage others to effectively manage
the problems. For example, in the case
of drug dealing in privately owned
apartment complexes, the most effective
police strategy is to educate property
owners and managers in effective
strategies so they can reduce their
property’s vulnerability to drug markets.

§§It is important to note that while
bullying may be a contributing factor in
many school shootings, it is not the cause
of the school shootings.

International research suggests that bullying is common at schools
and occurs beyond elementary school; bullying occurs at all grade
levels, although most frequently during elementary school. It occurs
slightly less often in middle schools, and less so, but still frequently,
in high schools.§ High school freshmen are particularly vulnerable.

Dan Olweus, a researcher in Norway, conducted groundbreaking
research in the 1970s exposing the widespread nature and harm of
school bullying.[3] Bullying is well documented in Europe, Canada,
Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, providing an extensive body
of information on the problem. Research from some countries has
shown that, without intervention, bullies are much more likely to
develop a criminal record than their peers,§§ and bullying victims
suffer psychological harm long after the bullying stops.

§For an excellent review of bullying
research up through 1992, see
Farrington (1993).

§§As young adults, former school bullies
in Norway had a fourfold increase in
the level of relatively serious, recidivist
criminality (Olweus 1992). Dutch and
Australian studies also found increased
levels of criminal behavior by adults
who had been bullies (Farrington 1993;
Rigby and Slee 1999).

Definition of Bullying

Bullying has two key components: repeated harmful acts and
an imbalance of power. It involves repeated physical, verbal, or
psychological attacks or intimidation directed against a victim who
cannot properly defend him- or herself because of size or strength,
or because the victim is outnumbered or less psychologically

Bullying includes assault, tripping, intimidation, rumor-spreading
and isolation, demands for money, destruction of property, theft of
valued possessions, destruction of another’s work, and name-calling.
In the United States, several other school behaviors (some of which
are illegal) are recognized as forms of bullying, such as:

• Sexual harassment (e.g., Repeated exhibitionism, voyeurism,
sexual propositioning, and sexual abuse involving unwanted
physical contact)
• Ostracism based on perceived sexual orientation
• Hazing (e.g., Upper-level high school athletes’ imposing
painfully embarrassing initiation rituals on their new freshmen

Not all taunting, teasing and fighting among schoolchildren
constitutes bullying.[6] “Two persons of approximately the same
strength (physical or psychological)…fighting or quarreling” is
not bullying. Rather, bullying entails repeated acts by someone
perceived as physically or psychologically more powerful.

Related Problems

Bullying in schools shares some similarities to the related problems
listed below, each of which requires its own analysis and response.
This guide does not directly address these problems:

• Bullying of teachers by students
• Bullying among inmates in juvenile detention facilities
• Bullying as a means of gaining and retaining youth gang
members and compelling them to commit crimes.

Extent of the Bullying Problem

Extensive studies in other countries during the 1980s and 1990s
generally found that between 8 and 38 percent of students are
bullied with some regularity,§ and that between five and nine
percent of students bully others with some regularity. Chronic
victims of bullying, bullied once a week or more, generally
constitute between 8 and 20 percent of the student population.[7]

In the United States, fewer studies have been done. A recent study
of a nationally representative sample of students found higher levels
of bullying in America than in some other countries. Thirteen
percent of sixth- through tenth-grade students bully, 10 percent
reported being victims, and an additional six percent are victimbullies.[8]

This study excluded elementary-age students (who often
experience high levels of bullying) and did not limit bullying to
school grounds. Several smaller studies from different parts of the
country confirm high levels of bullying behaviors, with 10 to 29
percent of students reported to be either bullies or victims. [9],§§

§A South Carolina study found that 20
percent of students bully others with
some regularity (Limber et al. 1998). In
an English study involving 25 schools
and nearly 3,500 students, 9 percent of
the students admitted to having bullied
others by sexual touching [Glover and
Cartwright, with Gleeson (1998)].

§§In some of the studies, lack of a common
definition of bullying potentially distorts
the estimates of the problem (Harachi,
Catalano and Hawkins 1999). In addition,
in the United States, the lack of a
galvanized focus on bullying has resulted in
a lack of large-scale school research efforts
(such as those in Scandinavia, England,
Japan, and Australia). Thus we have
only limited insights into the problem of
bullying here.

Clearly, the percentage of students who are bullies and victims
varies by research study, often depending on the definition used,
the time frame examined (e.g., ever, frequently, once a week)§ and
other factors.§§ Despite these differences, bullying appears to be
widespread in schools in every country studying the problem.§§§

A Threshold Problem:The Reluctance To Report

Most students do not report bullying to adults. Surveys from
a variety of countries confirm that many victims and witnesses
fail to tell teachers or even parents.[10] As a result, teachers may
underestimate the extent of bullying in their school and may be able
to identify only a portion of the actual bullies. Studies also suggest
that children do not believe that most teachers intervene when told
about bullying.[11]

“If the victims are as miserable as the research suggests, why don’t
they appeal for help? One reason may be that, historically, adults’
responses have been so disappointing.”[12] In a survey of American
middle and high school students, “66 percent of victims of bullying
believed school professionals responded poorly to the bullying
problems that they observed.”[13] Some of the reasons victims gave
for not telling include:

• Fearing retaliation
• Feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves
• Fearing they would not be believed
• Not wanting to worry their parents
• Having no confidence that anything would change as a result
• Thinking their parents’ or teacher’s advice would make the
problem worse
• Fearing their teacher would tell the bully who told on him or her
• Thinking it was worse to be thought of as a snitch.§§§§

§For the first time, during the 1997-98
school year, the United States participated
in an international study of young people’s
health, behavior and lifestyles, which
included conducting surveys on school
bullying. (European countries have
participated in the study since 1982.)
Researchers gathered data on 120,000
students from 28 countries. Upwards of
20 percent of 15-year-old U.S. students
reported they had been bullied at school
during the current term (see “Annual
Report on School Safety,” at www.ed.gov/
PDFDocs/InterimAR.pdf ). However,
a 2000 U.S. Department of Education
report on school crime (based on 1999
data), using a very narrow–and perhaps
too limited–definition of bullying than
the earlier report, showed that 5 percent of
students ages 12 through 18 had reported
being bullied at school in the last six
months (Kaufman et al. 2000).

§§The “Annual Report on School Safety,”
developed in response to a 1997 school
shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky., did
not until 1999 contain any data on school
bullying. The 1999 school bullying data
are aggregate, useful only in international
comparisons, since specific types of
bullying are not categorized. The report
tracks thefts, weapons, injuries, threats,
and physical fights, and some measures
of harassment and hate crimes. However,
the proportion of incidents that have their
roots in bullying is not specified.

§§§The words “bully” and “bullying” are
used in this guide as shorthand to include
all of the different forms of bullying

§§§§Similarly, many sexual assault and
domestic violence victims keep their abuse
a secret from the police. Police in many
jurisdictions see increased reporting of
these crimes as an important first step to
reducing the potential for future violence,
while victims often see it as jeopardizing
their safety. Some of the same interests and
concerns are found in the area of school

The same is true of student-witnesses. Although most students
agree that bullying is wrong, witnesses rarely tell teachers and only
infrequently intervene on behalf of the victim. Some students
worry that intervening will raise a bully’s wrath and make him or
her the next target. Also, there may be “diffusion of responsibility”;
in other words, students may falsely believe that no one person has
responsibility to stop the bullying, absent a teacher or a parent.

Student-witnesses appear to have a central role in creating
opportunities for bullying. In a study of bullying in junior and
senior high schools in small Midwestern towns, 88 percent
of students reported having observed bullying.[14] While some
researchers refer to witnesses as “bystanders,” others use a more
refined description of the witness role. In each bullying act, there
is a victim, the ringleader bully, assistant bullies (they join in),
reinforcers (they provide an audience or laugh with or encourage
the bully), outsiders (they stay away or take no sides), and defenders
(they step in, stick up for, or comfort the victim).[15] Studies suggest
only between 10 and 20 percent of noninvolved students provide
any real help when another student is victimized.[16]

Bullying Behavior

Despite country and cultural differences, certain similarities by
gender, age, location, and type of victimization appear in bullying in
the U.S. and elsewhere.

• Bullying more often takes place at school than on the way to and
from school.[17]
• Boy bullies tend to rely on physical aggression more than girl
bullies, who often use teasing, rumor-spreading, exclusion,
and social isolation. These latter forms of bullying are referred
to as “indirect bullying.” Physical bullying (a form of “direct
bullying”) is the least common form of bullying, and verbal
bullying (which may be “direct” or “indirect”) the most
common.[18] Some researchers speculate that girls value social
relationships more than boys do, so girl bullies set out to disrupt
social relationships with gossip, isolation, silent treatment, and
exclusion. Girls tend to bully girls, while boys bully both boys
and girls.
• Consistently, studies indicate that boys are more likely to bully
than girls.
• Some studies show that boys are more often victimized, at
least during elementary school years; others show that bullies
victimize girls and boys in near equal proportions.[19]
• Bullies often do not operate alone. In the United Kingdom,
two different studies found that almost half the incidents of
bullying are one-on-one, while the other half involves additional
• Bullying does not end in elementary school. Middle school
seems to provide ample opportunities for bullying, although
at lesser rates. The same is true of the beginning years of high
• Bullying by boys declines substantially after age 15. Bullying by
girls begins declining significantly at age 14.[21],§ So interventions
in middle and early high school years are also important.
• Studies in Europe and Scandinavia show that some schools seem
to have higher bullying rates than others. Researchers generally
believe that bullying rates are unrelated to school or class size,
or to whether a school is in a city or suburb (although one study
found that reporting was higher in inner-city schools). Schools
in socially disadvantaged areas seem to have higher bullying
rates,[22] and classes with students with behavioral, emotional,
or learning problems have more bullies and victims than classes
without such students.[23]
• There is a strong belief that the degree of the school principal’s
involvement (discussed later in this guide) helps determine the
level of bullying.
• There is some evidence that racial bullying occurs in the United
States. In a nationally representative study combining data about
bullying at and outside of school,
• 25 percent of students victimized by bullying reported they
were belittled about their race or religion (eight percent of those
victims were bullied frequently about it).[24] The study also found
that black youth reported being bullied less than their Hispanic
and white peers. Racial bullying is also a problem in Canada and
England. “In Toronto, one in eight children overall, and one
in three of those in inner-city schools, said that racial bullying
often occurred in their schools.”[25] In four schools–two primary,
two secondary–in Liverpool and London, researchers found that
Bengali and black students were disproportionately victimized.[26]

One of the things we do not yet know about bullying is whether
certain types of bullying, for instance racial bullying or rumor
spreading, are more harmful than other types. Clearly, much
depends on the victim’s vulnerability, yet certain types of bullying
may have longer-term impact on the victim. It is also unclear what
happens when a bully stops bullying. Does another student take
that bully’s place? Must the victim also change his or her behavior
to prevent another student from stepping in? While specific studies
on displacement have not been done, it appears that the more
comprehensive the school approach to tackling bullying, the less
opportunity there is for another bully to rise up.

§Results from several countries,
including Australia and England,
indicate that as students progress
through the middle to upper grades in
school, they become more desensitized
to bullying. High school seniors are the
exception: they show greater alarm about
the problem, just at the point when
they will be leaving the environment
(O’Moore 1999).


Many of the European and Scandinavian studies concur that
bullies tend to be aggressive, dominant, and slightly below average
in intelligence and reading ability (by middle school), and most
evidence suggests that bullies are at least of average popularity.[27]
The belief that bullies “are insecure, deep down” is probably
incorrect.[28] Bullies do not appear to have much empathy for their
victims.[29] Young bullies tend to remain bullies, without appropriate
intervention. “Adolescent bullies tend to become adult bullies,
and then tend to have children who are bullies.”[30] In one study
in which researchers followed bullies as they grew up, they found
that youth who were bullies at 14 tended to have children who
were bullies at 32, suggesting an intergenerational link.[31] They
also found that “[b]ullies have some similarities with other types of
offenders. Bullies tend to be drawn disproportionately from lower
socioeconomic-status families with poor child-rearing techniques,
tend to be impulsive, and tend to be unsuccessful in school.”[32]

In Australia, research shows that bullies have low empathy levels,
are generally uncooperative, and, based on self-reports, come
from dysfunctional families low on love. Their parents tend to
frequently criticize them and strictly control them.[33] Dutch (and
other) researchers have found a correlation between harsh physical
punishments such as beatings, strict disciplinarian parents and
bullying.[34] In U.S. studies, researchers have found higher bullying
rates among boys whose parents use physical punishment or
violence against them.[35]

Some researchers suggest that bullies have poor social skills and
compensate by bullying. Others suggest that bullies have keen
insight into others’ mental states and take advantage of that by
picking on the emotionally less resilient.[36] Along this line, there
is some suggestion, currently being explored in research in the
United States and elsewhere, that those who bully in the early
grades are initially popular and considered leaders. However, by the
third grade, the aggressive behavior is less well-regarded by peers,
and those who become popular are those who do not bully. Some
research also suggests that “[bullies] direct aggressive behavior at
a variety of targets. As they learn the reactions of their peers, their
pool of victims becomes increasingly smaller, and their choice of
victims more consistent.”[37] Thus, bullies ultimately focus on peers
who become chronic victims due to how those peers respond to
aggression. This indicates that identifying chronic victims early on
can be important for effective intervention.

A number of researchers believe that bullying occurs due to
a combination of social interactions with parents, peers, and
teachers.[38] The history of the parent-child relationship may
contribute to cultivating a bully, and low levels of peer and teacher
intervention combine to create opportunities for chronic bullies to
thrive (as will be discussed later).

Incidents of Bullying

Bullying most often occurs where adult supervision is low or absent:
schoolyards, cafeterias, bathrooms, hallways, and stairwells.[39]
“Olweus (1994) found that there is an inverse relationship between
the number of supervising adults present and the number of bully/
victim incidents.”[40] The design of less-supervised locations can
create opportunities for bullying. For instance, if bullying occurs
in a cafeteria while students vie for places in line for food, line
management techniques, perhaps drawn from crime prevention
through environmental design, could limit the opportunity to
bully. A number of studies have found that bullying also occurs in
classrooms and on school buses, although less so than in recess areas
and hallways. Upon greater scrutiny, one may find that in certain
classrooms, bullying thrives, and in others, it is rare. Classroom
bullying may have more to do with the classroom management
techniques a teacher uses than with the number of adult supervisors
in the room.

Other areas also offer opportunities for bullying. The Internet
creates opportunities for cyber-bullies, who can operate
anonymously and harm a wide audience. For example, middle
school, high school and college students from Los Angeles’ San
Fernando Valley area posted web site messages that were

…full of sexual innuendo aimed at individual students and
focusing on topics such as ‘the weirdest people at your school.’
The online bulletin boards had been accessed more than
67,000 times [in a two-week period], prompting a sense of
despair among scores of teenagers disparaged on the site,
and frustration among parents and school administrators.…
One crying student, whose address and phone number were
published on the site, was barraged with calls from people
calling her a slut and a prostitute.[41]

A psychologist interviewed for the Los Angeles Times remarked on
the harm of such Internet bullying:

It’s not just a few of the kids at school; it’s the whole world.…
Anybody could log on and see what they said about you….
What’s written remains, haunting, torturing these kids.[42]

The imbalance of power here was not in the bully’s size or strength,
but in the instrument the bully chose to use, bringing worldwide
publication to vicious school gossip.

Victims of Bullying

• Most bullies victimize students in the same class or year,
although 30 percent of victims report that the bully was
older, and approximately ten percent report that the bully was
• It is unknown the extent to which physical, mental or speech
difficulties, eyeglasses, skin color, language, height, weight,
hygiene, posture, and dress play a role in victim selection.[44]
One major study found “the only external characteristics…to
be associated with victimization were that victims tended to
be smaller and weaker than their peers.”[45] One study found
that nonassertive youth who were socially incompetent had
an increased likelihood of victimization.[46] Having friends,
especially ones who will help protect against bullying, appears
to reduce the chances of victimization.[47] A Dutch study found
that “more than half of those who say they have no friends are
being bullied (51%), vs. only 11 percent of those who say they
have more than five friends.”[48]

Consequences of Bullying

Victims of bullying suffer consequences beyond embarrassment.
Some victims experience psychological and/or physical distress,
are frequently absent and cannot concentrate on schoolwork.
Research generally shows that victims have low self-esteem, and
their victimization can lead to depression[49] that can last for years
after the victimization.[50] In Australia, researchers found that
between five and ten percent of students stayed at home to avoid
being bullied. Boys and girls who were bullied at least once a week
experienced poorer health, more frequently contemplated suicide,
and suffered from depression, social dysfunction, anxiety, and
insomnia.[51] Another study found that adolescent victims, once they
are adults, were more likely than non-bullied adults individuals to
have children who are victims.[52]

Chronic Victims of Bullying

While many, if not most, students have been bullied at some point
in their school career,[53] chronic victims receive the brunt of the
harm. It appears that a small subset of six to ten percent of school-
age children are chronic victims,[54] some bullied as often as several
times a week.§ There are more chronic victims in elementary school
than in middle school, and the pool of chronic victims further
shrinks as students enter high school. If a student is a chronic victim
at age 15 (high school age), it would not be surprising to find that
he or she has suffered through years of victimization. Because of
the harm involved, anti-bullying interventions should include a
component tailored to counter the abuse chronic victims suffer.

Several researchers suggest, although there is not agreement, that
some chronic victims are “irritating” or “provocative” because their
coping strategies include aggressively reacting to the bullying.[55]
The majority of chronic victims, however, are extremely passive and
do not defend themselves. Provocative victims may be particularly
difficult to help because their behavior must change substantially to
lessen their abuse.

Both provocative and passive chronic victims tend to be anxious
and insecure, “which may signal to others that they are easy
targets.”[56] They are also less able to control their emotions, and
more socially withdrawn. Tragically, chronic victims may return
to bullies to try to continue the perceived relationship, which may
initiate a new cycle of victimization. Chronic victims often remain
victims even after switching to new classes with new students,
suggesting that, without other interventions, nothing will change.[57]
In describing chronic victims, Olweus states: “It does not require
much imagination to understand what it is to go through the school
years in a state of more or less permanent anxiety and insecurity,
and with poor self-esteem. It is not surprising that the victims’
devaluation of themselves sometimes becomes so overwhelming
that they see suicide as the only possible solution.”[58],§§

§These figures are based on studies in
Dublin, Toronto and Sheffield, England
(Farrington 1993). Olweus, however,
in his Norwegian studies, found smaller
percentages of chronic victims.

§§A handful of chronic victims make the
leap from suicidal to homicidal thoughts.
Clearly, access to guns is also an issue.

In the United States, courts appear open to at least hearing
arguments from chronic victims of bullying who allege that schools
have a duty to stop persistent victimization.[59] It has yet to be
decided to what extent schools have an obligation to keep students
free from mistreatment by their peers. However, early and sincere
attention to the problem of bullying is a school’s best defense.

[Image: Obscured photo of male bullying another male in front of school lockers]
Credit: Teri DeBruhl

School bullying takes many forms including assault, tripping, intimidation, rumor-spreading
and isolation, demands for money, destruction of property, theft of valued possessions,
destruction of another’s work, and name-calling. In this photo, a bully assaults the victim
as another student watches. Studies suggest only between 10 and 20 percent of noninvolved
students provide any real help when another student is victimized.

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description
of bullying in schools. You must combine this general information
with a more specific understanding of your school’s problem.
Analyzing a school’s problem carefully will help you design a more
effective response strategy. Police who work with schools may even
find that many of the thefts, assaults and batteries, hate crimes, and
threats on school campuses (elementary, middle, and high school
level) are symptoms of bullying and are perpetrated by a small
percentage of chronic tormentors.

Asking the Right Questions§

The following are some critical questions you should ask in
analyzing your particular problem of bullying in schools, even if the
answers are not always readily available. The answers to these and
other questions will help you guide the school in choosing the most
appropriate set of responses later on.

The School

• Does the school believe it has a problem with bullying?
• Is the school aware of the long-term harms associated with
bullying and chronic victimization?
• Is the school aware of the different types of behavior that
constitute bullying?
• Does the school know how often bullying occurs on the campus
each year?
• How does the school’s level of bullying compare with that of
other schools that have examined bullying?
• Does the school have a policy to guide teachers and other staff
in handling incidents of bullying?

§The problem of bullying requires
extensive surveying of those affected. It is
recommended that police link with local
colleges, universities, or researchers to
prepare and pretest survey instruments.
Internationally valid questionnaires,
adapted from Olweus’ questionnaires,
are available to survey students,
classroom teachers, and other staff
involved in managing bullying problems.
These have been used as part of a
comparative project in Japan, Norway,
England, the Netherlands, and the state
of Washington, and require written
permission for use from Dan Olweus
(Research Center for Health Promotion,
Christies Gate 13, N-5015, Bergen,
Norway). The value of using these
questionnaires is the ability to make
comparisons among a wide range of
other sites. If you use anonymous written
surveys of students, it is important to
develop some other means for gathering
information from students on the
specific identities of chronic victims and
chronic bullies. Once gathered, compare
this information with that in school
records and with teachers’ observations
to see if there is some agreement. For
additional information on bullying
surveys, also see the European
Commission’s TMR Network Project on
bullying, involving collaboration among
five European countries, at

• How does the school identify bullies? Are records kept? Are
they adequate? Are school counselors in the loop?
• What insights do teachers have about bullying? Can they
identify some of the chronic victims and bullies?
• How are others (e.g., parents, police) brought into the loop, and
at what point?
• Given that most bullying occurs in areas where there are no
teachers, is the current method for identifying bullies adequate?


• Where do bullies operate at the school?
• What are the consequences for bullying at the school? Are they
applied consistently?
• Does the bullying stop? How is this determined?

Victims and Victimization

• Does the school know all the victims of bullying?
• How does the school identify victims? Given that most victims
and witnesses do not report, is the current system for identifying
victims adequate? Who are the chronic victims? What has the
school done to protect them?
• What are the most common forms of bullying victimization?
Does the school policy address them?
• Does the school have a policy regarding the reporting of bullying
and the role of bystanders?

Locations Where Bullying Occurs

• Where does bullying most often occur? Do data support this?
• When does bullying occur at those locations?
• Are those who supervise the locations during those times trained
to identify and appropriately handle bullying incidents?
• Has the school made changes to the locations to minimize
bullying opportunities?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

You should encourage the school to measure its bullying problem
before implementing responses, to determine how serious the
problem is, and after implementing them, to determine whether
they have been effective. Measurement allows school staff to
determine to what degree their efforts have succeeded, and
suggests how they might modify their responses if they are not
producing the intended results. For more detailed guidance on
measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series,
Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police
Problem-Solvers. The following potentially useful measures of the
effectiveness of responses to bullying should be taken using beforeand-
after surveys:

• Percentage of victims, by type of bullying
• Number of repeat victims
• Number of chronic bullies
• Frequency of victimization (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly)
• Percentage of bullying incidents reported to parents or
• Number of students who are knowledgeable about bullying and
how they should respond
• Percentage of students who witness bullying who report it to
teachers or parents
• Willingness of students to step in and help someone being
• Attendance, tardiness, behavior, and disciplinary reports of
chronic victims and bullies
• Bullying rates at specific bullying hot spots (e.g., bathrooms,
cafeteria, schoolyard).

Responses to the Problem of Bullying in Schools

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better
understanding of, among other things, the extent of the problem,
including the level of bullying and the identification of bullying hot
spots, chronic victims, and chronic offenders. Outlined below are
approaches used to address bullying, along with information about
their effectiveness.

General Requirements for an Effective Strategy To Counter
Bullying in Schools

1. Enlisting the school principal’s commitment and
involvement. The school principal’s commitment to and
involvement in addressing school bullying are key. In fact, in
comparing schools with high and low bullying rates, some research
suggests that a principal’s investment in preventing and controlling
bullying contributes to low rates.[60] A police officer’s knowledge of
and interest in the problem may serve to convince a principal to
invest the time and energy to collaboratively and comprehensively
tackle it.

2. Using a multifaceted, comprehensive approach. A
multifaceted, comprehensive approach is more effective than one
that focuses on only one or two aspects of school bullying. A
multifaceted, comprehensive approach includes:

• Establishing a schoolwide policy that addresses indirect bullying
(e.g., rumor spreading, isolation, social exclusion), which is more
hidden, as well as direct bullying (e.g., physical aggression)
• Providing guidelines for teachers, other staff and students
(including witnesses) on specific actions to take if bullying
• Educating and involving parents so they understand the
problem, recognize its signs and intervene appropriately
• Adopting specific strategies to deal with individual bullies and
victims, including meeting with their parents

§Some research refers to the whole-
school approach as the “schoolwide”
approach or “organizational” approach.
The three are identical, requiring
interventions at the school, class and
individual level.

• Encouraging students to report known bullying
• Developing a comprehensive reporting system to track bullying
and the interventions used with specific bullies and victims
• Encouraging students to be helpful to classmates who may be
• Developing tailored strategies to counter bullying in specific
school hot spots, using environmental redesign, increased
supervision, (e.g., by teachers, other staff members, parents,
volunteers) or technological monitoring equipment
• Conducting post-intervention surveys to assess the strategies’
impact on school bullying.

Specific Responses To Reduce Bullying in Schools

3. Using the “whole-school” approach.§ Olweus developed and
tested the whole-school approach in Scandinavia. It contains
elements listed under requirement 1 and 2 above (school principal’s
involvement and the multi-faceted, comprehensive approach) and
it has undergone repeated evaluations in other countries, including
the United States, with a range of successful results, including
a 50 percent reduction in bullying in 42 schools in one area of
Norway. However, most other applications of this approach achieve
improvements in the 20 to 30 percent range, which is significant.[61]
In some studies, the results are achieved primarily in the second
year. This approach can reduce the level of bullying and other
antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, fighting, theft, and truancy,
and improve the “social climate,” order and discipline in class.

The whole-school approach is somewhat easier to implement in
elementary schools, due to their size and structure. Students in
these schools generally interact with only one or two teachers
a year, guaranteeing higher levels of consistent messages from
teachers to students.[62] However, significant gains can also be
achieved in middle and high schools.[63] Research tells us that
the whole-school approach requires renewed effort each year
(reinforcing anti-bullying strategies with returning students, their
parents, and school staff ), which may be at odds with a school’s, or
even a police department’s, concern about tackling the latest hot
topic. However, one-time efforts will be less effective. Thus, schools
must prepare themselves to maintain momentum for anti-bullying
initiatives year after year.

4. Increasing student reporting of bullying. To address the
problem of students’ resistance to reporting bullying, some schools
have set up a bully hot line. One in England received thousands of
calls shortly after it was established. Some schools use a “bully box”;
students drop a note in the box to alert teachers and administrators
about problem bullies. Other approaches to increase reporting are
also used. In one Kentucky town, a police officer, keen to increase
reporting, developed a short in-class segment titled “Hero vs.
Snitch,” in which he discussed why reporting is heroic behavior, not

5. Developing activities in less-supervised areas. In these areas
(e.g., schoolyards, lunchrooms), trained supervisors spot bullying
and initiate activities that limit opportunities for it. Such activities
must be of interest to bullies and curb their behavior.

6. Reducing the amount of time students can spend less
supervised. Since much bullying occurs during less-supervised time
(e.g., recess, lunch breaks, class changes), reducing the amount of
time available to students can reduce the amount of bullying.

7. Staggering recess, lunch and/or class-release times. This
approach minimizes the number of bullies and victims present
at one time, so supervisors have less trouble spotting bullying.
However, supervisors must be mindful that most bullies are in the
same grade as their victims.

8. Monitoring areas where bullying can be expected (e.g.,
bathrooms). Adult monitoring can increase the risk that bullies get
caught, but may require increased staffing or trained volunteers.

[Images- Two views of a school hallway]
Photo Credit: Sean Lynch

The photo on the left illustrates a school hallway during class release time. The photo on
the right shows two of the strategies the school adopted to reduce bullying behavior in the
hallways: staggered class release times (evidenced by fewer students in the hallway) and
teacher monitoring of hallway behavior during class release time.

9. Assigning bullies to a particular location or to particular
chores during release times. This approach separates bullies from
their intended victims. Some teachers give bullies constructive tasks
to occupy them during release times. Careful victim monitoring
is required to ensure that bullies do not pick on victims at other

10. Posting classroom signs prohibiting bullying and listing
the consequences for it. This puts would-be bullies on notice and
outlines the risks they take. Teachers must consistently enforce the
rules for them to have meaning. Schools should post signs in each
classroom and apply age-appropriate penalties.

11. Providing teachers with effective classroom management
training. To address bullying, schools should ensure that all their
teachers have effective classroom management training. Since
research suggests that classes containing students with behavioral,
emotional, or learning problems have more bullies and victims,
teachers in those classes may require additional tailored training in
spotting and handling bullying.

12. Having high-level school administrators inform late-
enrolling students about the school’s bullying policy. This
removes any excuse new students have for bullying, and stresses the
importance the school places on countering it.
Responses With Limited Effectiveness

13. Training students in conflict resolution and peer mediation.
A number of schools adopt conflict resolution and peer mediation
training to address bullying (and other) problems. “Because
bullying involves harassment by powerful children of children with
less power (rather than a conflict between peers of relatively equal
status), common conflict-resolution strategies or mediation may
not be effective.”[64] In fact, they may actually further victimize a
child.[65] The training often offers too little for those students who
really need it, and too much for those who already have the skills.
The whole-school approach, in contrast, does not assume that
students alone can solve the bullying problem; interventions at all
levels are required: school, class, individual, teacher, parent, and

§In terms of peer mediation, one
Flemish study found that elementary-
and many middle school-age students
lack confidence in successfully
intervening (Stevens, Van Oost, and
De Bourdeaudhuij 2000). In another
study, researchers found that only small
numbers of students were willing to go
to peer-support training, and that it
was harder to get boys or male teachers
involved (Naylor and Cowie 1999). In
one study in Australia, however, Peterson
and Rigby (1999) found a tremendous
number of peer interventions, as part of
a whole-school approach. The result was
a modest decline in reported bullying of
students in their first year of high school,
but not in the other years. The authors
still found this significant because the
transition year into high school can be
intense for bullying.

14. Adopting a “zero tolerance” policy. Some schools, in their
rush to “do something” about bullying, adopt a “zero tolerance”
policy against it, without an in-depth analysis of their specific
problem or the comprehensive involvement of administrators,
teachers, other staff, student-witnesses, parents, bullies, and victims
at the school, class, and individual level. This approach may result
in a high level of suspensions without full comprehension of
how behavior needs to and can be changed. It does not solve the
problem of the bully, who typically spends more unsupervised time
in the home or community if suspended or expelled. Zero tolerance
may also ultimately have a chilling effect on reporting of bullying.

15. Providing group therapy for bullies. Some schools provide
self-esteem training for bullies. This may be misdirected: research
suggests that most bullies do not lack in self-esteem.[66]

16. Encouraging victims to simply “stand up”to bullies. Without
adequate support or adult involvement this strategy may be harmful
and physically dangerous for a victim of bullying.[67]

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