Stopping bullies starts with behavior
August 1, 2004
By Helen Altonn, Honolulu Star Bulletin
An expert talks about the link to Columbine as the American Psychological Association convention ends
Get-tough policies aren't the solution to school bullying, says a national authority in the field.
A change in behavior -- emphasizing that bullying is not cool -- is needed in the schools and classrooms, said Susan P. Limber, Bullying Prevention Project director at the University of South Carolina Institute for Families in Society.
Limber, who spoke at a convention in Waikiki yesterday, recommends a comprehensive schoolwide effort involving all students and demanding that all children be treated with respect and dignity. Schools should be concerned not only with grades and athletics, but how humane students are and how they treat the most vulnerable, she said.
"In the wake of Columbine, it makes sense to keep kids safe that we must keep bullies out of the hallways," Limber said.
But that casts a big net, she said, referring to studies that say one out of five kids admit they are bullies.
She said Draconian policies that suspend or expel kids from school would mean "a lot of kids potentially sent to an alternative setting," which she calls "bully schools." The result could be to encourage bullying and escalate anti-social behavior, she said.
Limber was among speakers at the American Psychological Association's 112th annual convention, which brought about 10,000 psychologists here for meetings ending today at the Hawaii Convention Center.
Limber said there's nothing new about bullying.
"It probably existed among Neanderthal cave children," but public concern is new, she said.
She said when she became involved in a study 10 years ago in South Carolina that schools typically consider bullying to be "just kids being kids." That changed dramatically in April 1999 when two teenagers -- Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold Eric -- walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., shot and killed 13 people, wounded 21 others, then killed themselves, she said.
"An explanation continues to haunt us all," she said, but "bullying was a smoking gun." Harris and Klebold reportedly were taunted by school bullies.
There were no state laws on bullying in 1999, but 17 states adopted such laws in four years and others are in the works, she said.
Studies have shown many children are involved in bullying, and most are concerned about it but they don't report it because they feel school personnel aren't responsive, she said.
In a 2001 study of 15,600 girls in sixth to 10th grades, 19 percent said they had bullied others; 17 percent had been bullied; and 6.3 percent said they both bullied and were bullied, she said.
A Harris Poll last year of 2,279 girls, 8 to 17 years old, reported 41 percent said their biggest fear was being teased or bullied, she said.
Bullying isn't motivated by anger or self-esteem, but by power, she said. It's often physical but more commonly involves taunting, teasing, social exclusion and manipulation, which "girls are good at," she said.
Limber said adults bullied as children are likely to suffer from self-esteem, depression and health problems. Children who bully are likely to get into fights, steal or vandalize school property, become involved with alcohol or drugs, have poor grades or drop out of school, she said.
Most strategies to address bullying are "common misdirections" that aren't related to research findings, she said. They range from doing nothing to holding assemblies or parent-teacher meetings, giving social skills training to victims and group treatment for bullies, excluding bullies from school and mediation-conflict resolution.
Zero tolerance and three-strikes policies get rid of bullies, but kids shouldn't be excluded except in rare cases, Limber said.
Group treatment is often ineffective and inadvertently reinforces bullying, she said. Mediation and conflict resolution doesn't work because bullying is a form of victimization, not a question of conflict, she noted.
Bullying problems can't be solved by a single school assembly or a "program du jour" approach, she said, stressing that a change of climate in schools requires a sustained effort over time supported by parents, policymakers and the community.