The results of a national survey of more than 1,500 high school students call into question the effectiveness of staff responses to bullying. The survey conducted last October by our Embrace Civility in the Digital Age project provides helpful insights into causes of hurtful behavior, but shows that a majority of students hold positive values.
Schools are encouraged—or required by law—to approach bullying as an act of defiance against authority. This includes requiring staff to stop bullying that they witness and to punish offenders. Schools must also establish systems so students can report these incidents.
But such an approach focuses solely on bullying—at the exclusion of other forms of hurtful behavior.
The Embrace Civility in the Digital Age survey asked students how frequently someone was hurtful to them, how upset they were, and how effectively they felt the problem was resolved.
The intentionally broad definition of “hurtful” included bullying, but was expanded to other hurtful behaviors. All hurtful interactions, whether one-directional or “bidirectional” (that is, when students responded hurtfully to being treated badly) can disrupt the school environment and interfere with student learning.
The survey identified 9 percent of students as “more vulnerable”—those who experienced hurtful incidents once or twice per week or almost daily, and felt powerless to stop them.
Based on an estimated U.S. secondary school population of 25 million, that equates to more than 2.2 million students.
These students were asked if their situations improved, stayed the same or got worse when staff members witnessed or were notified of hurtful incidents. From students’ perspective, staff members were present 69 percent of the time.
Afterward, according to the survey, the hurtful situations reportedly got better only 13 percent of the time, while students claimed their situation got worse 45 percent of the time.
When students reported an incident, 16 percent said things stayed the same. Nine percent reported the situation getting worse while only 11 percent of the students reported improvement.
However, 64 percent of the “more vulnerable” students never talked to staff about hurtful incidents.
Reluctance to speak
Students who did not tell a school staff member about a bullying incident indicated they did not do so because they did not think a staff member would do anything to help, or the situation would get worse.
These students also said that they “probably deserved it, they would be blamed, or they thought the hurtful student would retaliate.”
These results underscore a high level of ineffectiveness in staff responses to hurtful incidents, whether witnessed or reported, and that only a minority of students report these hurtful incidents to school staff.
To reduce all forms of hurtful interactions between students, schools need to rethink how staff respond.
Several factors appear associated with this low level of staff effectiveness:
- These incidents frequently occur in classrooms and hallways, when staff have the compelling responsibility to get students settled down to their studies. Staff often do not receive helpful guidance about how to respond.
- The statutory and policy focus on “bullying”—as distinguished from all forms of hurtful behavior—may cause staff to not respond two means are being mean to each other.
- Those who engage in bullying were often characterized as “at-risk” students.
Staff, therefore, may not recognize the hurtful acts of socially skilled students who are denigrating others to achieve social dominance.
Concerns associated with the statutory and policy focus on “bullying,” as distinguished from other forms of hurtful behavior, were also evident in other data. Interestingly, the survey data demonstrates that many of these hurtful incidents involve what appears to be bidirectional cycles of hurtful acts.
Eighty-one perent of students who said they were “frequently” hurtful and 69 percent who were “ever” hurtful also reported that someone had been mean to them.
According to the survey, the students’ top reasons for responding hurtfully were that they had acted quickly without thinking of the consequences and the focus of their action was someone who had picked on them or a friend—in other words, impulsive behavior and retaliation.
Students appear to have mixed feelings about retaliation. They think it may sometimes be appropriate, but when hurtful responses were described more specifically, students did not think these behaviors were effective.
Students also thought it was generally helpful for those who are treated badly to respond immediately. While these students likely believe fighting back shows personal strength, research shows it may actually further the cycle of hurtful acts.
Reducing impulsive retaliation could result in an improvement in general student relations. Fortunately, there are solid, research-based strategies to reduce impulsive behavior and retaliation.
Districts and schools can also help address bullying and harassment by improving school climate.
The social-emotional-cultural competencies and well-being of students should be a priority, with dedicated staffing and broad-based coordinating committees. And regular evaluation of these issues will be necessary.
Reducing and limiting the harmful effects of bullying will require a comprehensive, ongoing effort that includes designated staff, coordinating committees to keep everyone informed, a focus on positive school climate as well as on students’ social and emotional needs and competencies.
Contrary to common practices, there is no research evidence that one-time, flashy anti-bullying assemblies in October will have much positive impact.
Student norms and values
The survey also asked students why they would not engage in hurtful behavior and how they would effectively respond to these situations.
The vast majority of students expressed disapproval of bullies. Students admire those who are kind and respectful to others and who step in to help if they witness hurtful situations.
Students surveyed often described those who step in to help with such words as: “brave, kind, hero, nice, courageous and caring.”
Students don’t think highly of those who encourage bullying, who laugh when they see hurtful situations or who think it is “cool” to denigrate others.
Furthermore, students believe the best way to respond is with “personal power”—such as calmly telling a bully to stop or deciding not give a hurtful person control over how you feel about yourself. Students also said the main reason for not bullying is that they don’t want to be treated badly.
These findings indicate that students want to help, but ultimately they perceive there are barriers that prevent them from doing so.
Finally, the students who were surveyed indicated that they weren’t sure how to intervene, or feared that they would not be supported by peers when trying to help.
Students therefore need be empowered as leaders and assisted in gaining greater skills to foster positive relations and to reduce hurtful behaviors.
The overarching implications of these survey findings are that the current approaches to bullying that schools are encouraged or required to implement must be fundamentally altered in order to improve effectiveness.
New positive approaches must reflect the actual circumstances and dynamics of potentially hurtful situations, more effectively respond to the underlying concerns of the students, and more effectively engage students in leadership roles to foster positive relations.
This effort must be grounded in an overall, multitiered focus on establishing a positive school climate.