Every year, the excitement of being in school permeates through the air. Parents are rushing through the school car pool lanes as students are walking into their classrooms feverishly talking to their friends about the upcoming day. Their happy everyday routines are in place. But for many children, the excitement of being at school is tempered by caution and worry.

It is important that everyone is looking forward to being in a safe and secure environment. As we move into the new year, we want to make sure both parents and students are comfortable walking into an encouraging environment that promotes safe learning. While active shooter incidents grab headlines and are terrifying, school bullying is occurring both on and off school campuses every day.

Stats with Lasting Impact

Startling statistics reveal that between one and three students say they have experienced bullying and that 64 percent of bullying incidents go unreported. Children who are bullied and children who bully others may have lasting problems. Studies show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, engage in criminal behavior and later have more difficulty keeping steady jobs. Those who are victims of bullying suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Bystanders who are neither a bully nor a victim may be affected and feel powerless, fearful or guilty for not being helpful.

A recent U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) studied 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred in K-12 schools in the U.S. from 2008 to 2017. The NTAC revealed most attackers had been bullied by their classmates, and the bullying appeared to be ongoing, lasting weeks, months or years. "It is critical that schools implement comprehensive programs designed to promote safe and positive school climates, where students feel empowered to report bullying when they witness it or are victims of it, and where school officials and other authorities act to intervene," the report says.

An Ever-Evolving Menace

For many, the word bully brings to mind the schoolyard menace of their youth. Every school had one – the bigger kid who found joy in tormenting their younger or smaller classmates by stealing their lunch money, tripping them in the halls and relentlessly taunting them during recess. However, with the anonymity of the Internet and the rise of social media platforms, bullying is evolving into new and more complex forms.

The bully of today is a shapeshifter and regardless of their chosen form of torment, the psychological impact they wield can be devastating. The U.S. Department Education defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. Bullying is behavior that is repeated and is likely to be repeated over time.

There are both direct and indirect forms of bullying that can manifest physically, verbally and/or nonverbally. Direct bullying is overt and can include physical assault, damage of property, verbally teasing or making racial or sexual comments and making threatening gestures or messages. Indirect bullying is bullying by extension and can include situations such as manipulating another to assault someone else, spreading rumors, excluding select individuals from groups or activities and social and cyber harassment.

Diffusing the Bully’s Power

Rather than simply avoiding a bully, learning to identify untoward behaviors and working to discourage and rectify can create better outcomes for both bully and intended and unintended targets. We can’t always depend on children to tell us what is really going on since children who may bully others often explain away their behavior as “just messing around” or “it is all in fun.”

The key is to look for cues to help interpret the behavior. Consideration of body language and facial expression is critical. Be on the lookout for obvious and subtle signs of distress that contradict what an individual may say. Most importantly, following up in situations where bullying is suspected and responding quickly and consistently to the troublesome behavior sends a clear message that bullying is not acceptable.

Below are more tips and strategies designed to help prevent and/or put an end to bully behavior:

School safety officers should encourage parents to:

  • Ask their child about his or her school day and be an active listener.
  • Encourage conversation about what is happening at school, increasing the likelihood their child will come to them if something is wrong.
  • Set a good example by not engaging in bully-like behaviors. Avoid cursing at people. Don’t tease people or nitpick. Model proper and effective communication in heated discussions.
  • Address bully-like behaviors if you see them in their child. Teach respectful interactions between adults and children.

School safety officers should encourage students to:

  • Act confident and present themselves as unaffected by a bully’s attempts to hurt them.
  • Travel in pairs or groups; there truly is strength in numbers.
  • If possible, avoid areas where they know a bully hangs out.
  • Do not retaliate. Never seek revenge or attempt to ‘get even’ with a bully.
  • Tell a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult if they are being bullied or harassed.
  • Never join in when someone is being bullied, even as a bystander. Get a teacher immediately to de-escalate the situation.

School safety officers should encourage faculty and members of the school community to:

  • Model respectful, responsible and safe behaviors.
  • Report dangerous situations or safety concerns immediately.
  • Reinforce positive behavior when they encounter it.
  • Be a compassionate listener if a student confides in them. Take it seriously and do not pass judgement. Listen. 
  • If they witness suspected bully behavior, don’t ignore it. Get help from another adult, alert school administrators or authorities as protocol instructs.
  • If safe to do so, intervene in a calm and tactful way. Do not exacerbate the situation in any manner.
  • Make sure everyone is safe and provide reassurance to those involved and witnesses.

Overall, school safety officers should contact police or call for medical help immediately if:

  • A weapon is involved.
  • There are threats of serious physical injury are being made.
  • There are threats of hate-motivated violence.
  • Sexual abuse is involved.
  • Illegal acts such as robbery, extortion or use of force are involved.

Putting an end to the bullying that plagues our schools requires the help of the entire school community. Creating and sustaining inclusive campuses is a vital first step and requires us all to be vigilant participants in that mission. Through our collective support, we can help ensure the academic success of each child, giving them the opportunity to learn and achieve. It takes a village to support of each child.