Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 6.3: Dealing with Bullying & Racism
The article below was written by Becki Cohn-Vargas.
Preventing and Addressing Bullying and Intolerance
Bullying consists of a wide range of actions from persistent teasing and unwanted physical or verbal comments—which are not in themselves considered to be criminal acts—to serious criminal behaviors such as extortion, threats, vandalism, robbery, assault, and battery. Local law enforcement officers and school resource officers (SRO) can be of great assistance to school personnel in helping to reduce or eliminate incidences of bullying by becoming involved in positive school-sponsored bullying prevention programs. Officers can play a leadership role through community policing programs that educate and help young people avoid arrest and prevent contact with the juvenile justice system.
This guide is intended to be a primary resource for law enforcement officers who play a large role in helping educate children and adults about the problems resulting from bullying and ways to prevent and intervene in bullying incidents. Officers can also help targets of bullying break a cycle by being a trusted and safe adult to whom children can turn. They can help bystanders learn to speak up to stop bullying, and they can help children who bully transform their behavior and break out of patterns of behavior that lead to further harm.
How this guide will help you help others
The purpose of this guide is to inform and to share some of the powerful and proven ways local SROs and other law enforcement officials can address and respond to bullying. SROs should help ensure campus safety. Although they are not on-site to carry out disciplinary functions that fall under the purview of school personnel, SROs can play an important role as law enforcers, educators, and informal counselors.
This guide begins with some background including definitions of bullying and intolerance. Next, the guide presents concrete ways law enforcement can partner with school leaders to prevent or respond to bullying. The guide concludes with ways law enforcement officers, SROs, school administration, students, parents, and community leaders can work together to address and prevent incidences of bullying and intolerance.
The ideas put forth in this guide apply to young people from all ethnic groups and genders and all ages from preschool to high school. In this guide, we use the words students, children, young people, and teens, as well as she and he, interchangeably.
Positive behaviors, like negative behaviors, are contagious and can spread through social networks. This is a hopeful sign given the urgency to address all forms of bullying and intolerance. Together we can find sustainable solutions to these issues and prevent tragic consequences.
This guide was produced as part of the Not In Our Town: Working Together for Safe, Inclusive Communities collaboration between Not In Our Town and the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office).
The role of community oriented policing and school resource officers in creating safe and bully-free schools
SROs and other local law enforcement personnel have an important role in creating and maintaining safe spaces at school where young people can flourish. SROs can foster positive relationships with students, serve as resources to staff and parents, and provide a sense of safety and security by offering expertise on crime prevention to educational leaders. According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools and law enforcement must “ensure that any school-based law enforcement officers’ roles focus on improving school safety and reducing inappropriate referrals to law enforcement.” When officers understand the dynamics of bullying and intolerance and effective strategies to use with young people, they can contribute to positive school environments and safe schools.
Communities work best for youth when everyone works together
Communities—including families, schools, law enforcement, and others—can work together to prevent and address bullying. Law enforcement officers and educators increase their effectiveness when they partner in the process of preventing and addressing bullying. Together they can serve as role models; educate; listen to, encourage, and strengthen students who have been bullied; empower bystanders to act; and help those who bully others to behave appropriately and kindly.
Bullying and victimization: National issues that require local solutions
A proverbial ounce of prevention makes a big difference, and it is important that law enforcement officials learn to identify the various forms of bullying to which children are subjected. Almost every law enforcement officer, school official, or counselor has a tale of bullying that has gone too far. We all know the mantra, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” However, words do hurt. Bullying can cause life-long damage to a child. People can no longer ignore these behaviors. When communities come together for local solutions, they can make a difference in student lives.
This guide aims to offer SROs and other law enforcement officials a knowledge base about bullying; concrete examples of positive actions that can deter bullying behavior; and strategies that move away from suspension, expulsion and arrests, curtailing unnecessary entrance into the juvenile justice system.
Not In Our School and the movement to end bullying
Not In Our School (NIOS), a project of the 20-year-old national nonprofit organization Not In Our Town, is a movement for lasting change that asks the entire community to work together to transform the social climate in schools and communities away from bullying and intolerance toward safety and inclusion. NIOS works with schools to develop student-led bullying prevention campaigns and provides an array of films, lesson plans, and activity guides to assist schools in the process.
By becoming involved in Not In Our School, community members can model and practice empathy, thoughtful responses, and respect for different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and gender identities.
The accepted bullying definitions: Something old and something new
A common but outdated perception of a bully is a bigger kid physically overpowering another child to get his lunch money. Today however, especially with the anonymity of the Internet, bullying is far more complex than that. The U.S. Department of Education defines bullying in the following way:
“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include
An imbalance of power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people;
repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
An imbalance of power may include physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or threats to popularity that are used in attempts to control or harm others.
There are three main kinds of bullying:
- Physical. Hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking personal property or making mean or rude hand gestures.
- Verbal. Teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, or threats of physical harm.
- Relational. Leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors, or embarrassing someone in public.
Bullying often happens under the radar of teachers and other adults. When a young person is accused of being mean to another, they might respond with, “I was just kidding.” This is one way bullying can start and gradually accelerate. The target feels bad, but out of shame, she does not report it. In other cases, a youth is threatened that worse things will happen if he reports.
Cyberbullying, defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices,” has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Cyberbullying is willful because it consists of intentional actions that, like other forms of bullying, are repeated with the intent to hurt another person. New forms of cyberbullying continue to emerge as different electronic applications (“apps”) become available, making it possible to anonymously share words, photos, or videos with large numbers of people. The imbalance of power in cyberbullying manifests differently: Power in cyberspace may be gained from access to information, photos, or videos along with the capacity to spread the information quickly, rendering the target powerless to stop or respond to it.
Research studies and statistics: More than just numbers on a page A wealth of research has provided much information on the impact of bullying and effective methods to address it. University of California Davis researchers Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee studied bullying behavior in urban and suburban high schools. They found that bullying behavior is often triggered by youth seeking to climb the social ladder. Faris explains,
“Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status. It’s really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It’s the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things . . . often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors.”
These findings contrast with a popularly held notion that only socially marginalized youth engage in bullying. For this reason, schools need to design bullying interventions that target all students.
Faris proposes teaching students that bullying has negative consequences for victims and perpetrators and using research to demonstrate that in the long run, bullying will not afford youth the popularity they are seeking.
Law enforcement officials can be a valuable resource for helping children and adults move past the stereotypes and see the actual affected lives behind the numbers. As you read these research statistics, please remember that these are real people who are impacted by bullying:
- 20 percent of students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying.
- 70.6 percent of teens have seen bullying occur in their schools. If someone intervenes, the bullying stops within 10 seconds. This statistic is significant because it shows both the prevalence of school bullying and the potential for stopping it if young people are taught safe ways to intervene.
- 64 percent of bullying incidents are underreported. Many youth who are targets will not tell anyone, not even an adult or a friend. This points to the role of adults in monitoring student behavior to recognize when a child is behaving differently and possibly being bullied.
- Students who are different in some way are often the targets of bullying, teasing, and harassment, particularly around differences of race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, and ability or disability.
- Bullying can account for a decrease of 1.5 grade levels in one academic subject over three years. This points to the need to address bullying to ensure students’ success in school.
Bullying has been linked to criminal behavior
Some researchers have suggested that those who bully others are at higher risk of becoming involved in antisocial and criminal behavior later in their lives, including dating and intimate partner violence. In one study, 60 percent of those characterized as bullies in grades 6 to 9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24. These statistics underscore the importance of helping students who bully transform their behavior.
Intolerance and bias
Intolerance is often at the heart of bullying, revealed through unkind remarks and negative stereotypes regarding a person’s race, ethnicity, language, social class, appearance, sexual orientation, religion, or physical ability.
Peers, family members, teachers, coaches, or other adults in a child’s life sometimes encourage these intolerant attitudes. They may use anti-gay epithets or make remarks about people of different religions or racial groups or disparaging comments about a person’s weight, appearance, or intelligence, all the while unaware that their children are listening. Intolerant behaviors are also learned through exposure to television, music, and the Internet. For example, students may hear news items about people of Middle Eastern descent being called terrorists and then target their own peers who wear turbans or hijabs. They may mimic anti-gay remarks about effeminate peers or repeat the overwhelming number of insulting comments about overweight people they hear in movies. Students may express intolerance out loud in a classroom or public place or online or in other secret places.
Adults are often unaware that bullying is taking place. In a diverse community, people may assume that since their child has been exposed to different races, sexual orientations, etc., he or she will automatically be tolerant. Children need adult guidance to help them understand that all people deserve respect and equal opportunities. While many organizations are dedicated to addressing bullying, often the link between bullying and intolerance is ignored. As part of bullying prevention efforts, it is crucial to examine intolerance and help children develop accepting attitudes about people from different backgrounds.
Where do people learn to be intolerant? How does intolerance foster bullying incidents?
Statistics show the link between bullying and intolerance. For example, consider the following:
- 65 percent of parents whose children have Asperger’s Syndrome report their children have been victimized by peers.
- 86 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students report being bullied at school.
- 67 percent of Sikh youth reported that they are bullied in school, especially those wearing turbans.
- 80 percent of Muslim youth reported being bullied, and 50 percent said they had been taunted in front of teachers or administrators.
These numbers signal the need to help students learn to be empathetic and get to know people who are different from themselves. School resource officers and law enforcement officials can help children and adults change their attitudes, and in turn, change their behavior.
It’s never too early to teach and to learn
Starting in preschool, children need to learn about differences and about being kind to others. Skills for social-emotional learning (SEL) can be taught at home and in school. Children can learn how to communicate and express feelings, how to be empathetic, and how to control their impulses and think before they act.
Playful teasing and calling other children embarrassing nicknames, which can begin innocently, should be stopped as well. The target may laugh on the outside to cover up hurting on the inside. Starting at a young age, children also need to be given clear messages that hurtful remarks and exhibiting cruel behavior are harmful acts and will not be tolerated.
As law enforcement officials, you have the opportunity to model a different form of behavior and articulate to the youth you work with that name calling and stereotyping can be both incorrect and extremely harmful. Your empathy will help foster trust and send a message of acceptance to students who are feeling different.
Source: COPS Office. Preventing and Addressing Bullying and Intolerance A guide for law enforcement.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/13/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.