As summer vacation comes to a close, students across the country are returning to school with high hopes for the new school year. But statistics show that close to 30 percent of middle and high school students will be the victims of bullying before school lets out next spring.
In an era when a single high-profile case of bullying can be the catalyst for state-level legislation, all but one state has anti-bullying legislation on the books, and school leaders are facing more pressure than ever to curtail bullying.
As a former special education teacher and high school headmaster, Ed Donnelly has firsthand experience helping teachers and administrators address bullying. Since joining EDC in 2011, he has continued to help them develop effective anti-bullying programs. He believes that the conversation about bullying behavior has swung from tacit acceptance to active intolerance, and that schools now know what to do to confront bullying head on.
Q: Bullying used to be seen as a normal part of childhood. What’s changed?
Donnelly: Even 5 or 10 years ago, people accepted bullying more. There was the feeling that it was part of growing up or even that it was good for kids, that it would toughen them up. But I think in the last few years, we’ve really said no to those ideas.
I don’t think being bullied should be a condition of growing up. We’re recognizing it as a serious problem, and we’re more focused on finding ways to prevent it.
Q: Forty-nine states have passed anti-bullying laws. Has this made it easier or harder for schools to deal with the problem?
Donnelly: I think it has pushed the issue to the forefront. Bullying prevention is a mandate now. So when a parent calls and says, “I think my child is being bullied at school,” the schools have to do something about it.
The real beauty of having laws and policies in place is that they encourage principals and teachers to get out in front of bullying before it starts. These laws have also created a demand for professional development. I’ve been heavily involved in developing proactive programs where teachers learn both what bullying is and how to help victims.
Q: What are some of the warning signs that a child is being bullied?
Donnelly: Talking about not wanting to go to school is the biggest warning sign. Kids who are being bullied will often distance themselves from long-time friends, and often become more secretive, too. Another symptom of bullying is loss of interest in a favorite activity. So if a child is really into track, and then all of a sudden doesn’t want to go to meets anymore, that might be a sign that something is going on.
Q: What can parents do if they suspect their child is being bullied?
Donnelly: Keep talking to your kids. Always keep the line of communication open. This can start with simple questions, such as “Who did you eat lunch with today?” or “Where does so-and-so sit on the bus?” Parents often have to work hard to keep those lines of communication open, but it is essential.
I also tell parents to become familiar with the laws and policies about bullying in their state. That gives parents the ability to look at bullying from a legal point of view, since schools are now mandated to do something about it. Ignoring bullying is simply not legal.
Q: As a former principal, what tips do you have for school leaders who are dealing with bullying?
Donnelly: We’re not surprised when kids can’t read or do math when they come to school. We know we have to teach them to do that. So why are we surprised when we see that kids struggle to act with respect or empathy? We know that repeated punishment does not curb bullying behavior. So the idea is not to punish kids who bully; it’s to teach them empathy.
This can start with small actions. When I was a high school principal, there was this one girl who was always getting into trouble. But the first day of school one year, I saw her help a new freshman figure out which bus to take home. So I said, “Come on, let’s go call your mother.” She said, “Why?” And I said “Because I’m always calling your mother when you’re not doing well. Now I want to call her and tell her what a great kid you just were.”
Originally published on August 27, 2012