Bullying Prevention and Community Solutions

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Bullying causes long-term damage on students' mental health, often resulting in anxiety, depression or PTSD during a critical developmental stage. But evidence-based approaches provide healthy solutions to complex situations—involving parents, teachers, administrators and other community members at every stage of the process. Jan Urbanski, EdD, Director of Safe and Humane Schools at Clemson University, explains how.

When students are feeling safe in school, there's more time on task. They're paying more attention to learning.

Jan Urbanski

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, the podcast series produced by Hazelden Betty Ford for you, our constituents. Who want to know more about the issues that matter to you when it comes to substance use and misuse, addiction to alcohol and other drugs, mental health issues, prevention and research, treatment and recovery, advocacy and training for students and professionals. Whatever your interests, we're glad that you've joined with us today. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, joined by Jan Urbanski. The Director of Safe and Humane Schools within the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University. Where she oversees dissemination of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and related initiatives focused on positive connections and reduced bullying and violence. Thank you, Jan, for joining us today.

0:01:07 Jan Urbanski
Thank you for inviting me! [smiles]

0:01:09 William Moyers
So here we are, we're gonna talk about bullying and prevention, but I want to do it in the context of the fact that you and I are connecting here. In mid-2023. The pandemic is behind us, students are back in schools, but I'm wondering from your perspective, what is the state of the student today? And what is the state of schools in the context of bullying post-COVID?

0:01:36 Jan Urbanski
There's a lot of things happening in our schools. Mental health and trauma are big issues impacting our students. Bullying is a part of that because bullying can be a form of trauma for our students. And we do know that bullying's still one of the most common forms of violence experienced by children. And that belief that it's just part of growing up is really still prevalent. So there's still bullying happening. We do know that data from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed a pretty steady rate of bullying at around 20 percent from 2011 to 2019. That dropped to 15 percent in 2021. But, when we think about the question being asked is what's happened over the last 12 months, and brick and mortar schools being closed, we have to question that. You know, is that rate really an accurate rate? Because the other piece of it is that electronic bullying, the rate of that, students are reporting has been unchanged from 2011 to 2021. So we know that bullying's still happening in schools. And we do know that bullying's a form of trauma. It impacts a student's mental health, it impacts how they're doing in school academically, their social relationships. So still a problem that schools have to deal with.

0:02:59 William Moyers
I'm struck that you used the term bullying and violence in the same sentence. Bullying is violence?

0:03:09 Jan Urbanski
Bullying is a form of peer abuse. And it is a form of violence. It's one of the most common forms that our students are experiencing. It might not be as overtly threatening as what, weapons in school? But it definitely occurs more frequently. And it has a profound impact on students' emotional health, their school performance, and it impacts the school climate as well. So yeah, it's a form of violence. 

0:03:37 William Moyers
Jan, what does bullying look like? How does it manifest itself in the school setting? Before we go to the cyberbullying. 

0:03:47 Jan Urbanski
Well, bullying is a pretty complex behavior. But, not everything that happens in a school is bullying. So, really looking as I said bullying is a form of abuse, it's a form of aggression. The behavior's repeated. Or it has the potential to be repeated. And it's unlike other forms of aggression because there's an imbalance of power between the person who is doing the bullying and the person who's being bullied. And that power might be a physical difference. But it could be something that's emotional or verbal, and it really can be quite subtle. You know, as you mentioned, it can occur through electronic means. But it can also be just direct in the form of verbal or physical bullying, it can be indirect behavior such as spreading rumors or excluding someone from a group. So, basically in looking at what bullying is, there are three key components that make up a bullying behavior. It's an aggressive behavior; it's intentionally aggressive. It's usually repeated or has that potential to be repeated. And it involves an imbalance of power or strength.

0:04:55 William Moyers
Hmm. And what about cyberbullying?

0:04:59 Jan Urbanski
Well, cyberbullying is similar in definition, but it's commonly understood to be a willful and repeated harm that's inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices. And there are some similarities with traditional bullying. But there's a lot of differences that make it quite unique. Accessibility is graded for cyberbullying. Most in-person bullying occurs at school, but the electronic bullying can happen at any time of the day or night. So it's really leaving the students open to feel they can't escape it. It can also go viral. So, it's easier for others to join in. The person who's being targeted may not know who's bullying them, they may not know why it's happening. You know, something like anonymous accounts or fake screen names can really hide the identity of the person who's doing the bullying. And the other difference is that it's easier to be cruel with technology because you're doing it from a distance, so that victim's immediate response isn't visible to the person who's doing the bullying. 

It's also different in that with either type of bullying, victims hesitate to report the bullying, but the reasons for it are different. With traditional bullying, they might fear retaliation. But with cyberbullying, they would fear that the form of bullying, their technology, would be taken away if they're reported. But an important piece to remember is if someone's being cyberbullied, there's a really good chance that person's also a victim of traditional bullying. While there is some overlap, it's also important to know that it really is adults who wanna separate it into online bullying and traditional bullying. To youth, it's all just bullying. They don't tend to separate it. 

0:06:56 William Moyers
Who's particularly vulnerable or at risk for bullying?

0:07:01 Jan Urbanski
Well there aren't any specific factors that would make somebody at risk for bullying. But there are some things that being involved in bullying—some kind of characteristics—that might put someone at a higher risk. That includes if someone's withdrawn or has a low self-esteem. Maybe they're very cautious or quiet or anxious or insecure. They may have lower school achievement. There may be a lot of absenteeism, some social isolation. And these factors really can be contributing factors to the bullying, but they could also be consequences of victimization. But there are some populations that are at particularly high risk of being bullied because of the way they're just perceived as being different. Children with disabilities, special needs, health problems might be at risk. Populations of sexual minority youth, overweight, underweight youth are also vulnerable. And some other factors would be their socioeconomic status, immigration status, or minority religious affiliations tend to put a student at a higher risk of being bullied. 

0:08:16 William Moyers
Before we talk about the solution, one more question and in that context, is there a connection between mental health and bullying?

0:08:24 Jan Urbanski
Definitely there is a connection. [chuckles] That bullying can be a repeated, chronic stressor, so it's a source of trauma for young people. And that chronic stress of the repeated bullying can lead to internalizing problems for those who are victimized. And externalizing or acting out problems for those who are bullying others. So, you know, if constantly in a fight-or-flight mode, our brain gets stuck in survival mode. And that interferes with critical thinking, emotional regulation, ability to understand how others are feeling. So yeah, bullying can have some devastating effects on children. That includes psychosocial distress, poor mental health, higher rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, lower self-esteem, lower self-worth. Higher levels of shame. And even according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, being bullied can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. 

0:09:25 William Moyers

0:09:26 Jan Urbanski
So definitely a connection between mental health and being victimized. But, there's also some concerns for children who are bullying others as well. Because with those we still see some of the same kinds of things and we know, you know, thinking about Adverse Childhood Experiences, bullying behaviors were more prevalent in students with higher ACE scores. So, it's whether you're a victim of bullying, whether you're the person who's doing the bullying, or even if you're the bystander who sees it, or knows that it's happening, there's definitely that connection. Of just feeling that something's not right, at school you're not feeling safe, you're not feeling like the teachers or the administrators or the adults in school can keep you safe, if bullying's prevalent in the school. So, considering that co-existing nature of bullying and mental health issues, addressing mental health may impact reductions in bullying.

0:10:28 William Moyers

0:10:29 Jan Urbanski
And addressing bullying may help to lead to improved mental health outcomes as well. So definitely a connection between the two. 

0:10:35 William Moyers
So let's talk more about that solution and where you target it. Does a solution start in schools?

0:10:42 Jan Urbanski
It's really a very complex behavior, so there is no easy answer or quick fix to the problem of bullying. But there are things that can be done. One of the best tools for decreasing problems associated with bullying is to implement evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies. It's important to change the climate and social norms of the school. If they're embedded with beliefs that support bullying behaviors. It's important to teach staff and students, and parents and families, that bullying is unacceptable. And empowers them to address bullying behavior if it does happen. So, it involves everyone—it's not the sole responsibility of any single individual. So a comprehensive evidence-based program involves all staff, all students, parents, and even the community in bullying prevention efforts. It addresses things at multiple levels so an effective program begins with universal prevention efforts that are for all students at the school. And then there would be preventative interventions for students who are at risk of bullying, others are being bullied. And then would offer intensive support for students involved in bullying situations. 

And parents are involved in that whole—in all of those pieces. So it's not an answer that just the schools need to do, just the students, or just the families, it really is everybody working together to make that happen. 

0:12:14 William Moyers
But, lots of—and I don't mean this is as a 'but,' but— [chuckles]

0:12:20 Jan Urbanski
[chuckles] Okay.

0:12:21 William Moyers
It takes highly trained counselors or professionals to help schools and parents come to terms with this, yes?

0:12:38 Jan Urbanski
In some components of it, yes. But it doesn't fall solely on those highly skilled counselors. Or social workers or psychologists or whoever it might be. It really does need to be everybody. So, an example of an evidence-based program that really does this is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. And it's looking at, it's a framework that creates a safe and positive climate. But it has that intentional focus on addressing bullying. It's not really a program in a narrow sense; it's a collection of research-based components that form a unified, whole-school approach, that discourages bullying and addresses it effectively if it occurs. So when you're looking at that universal prevention, that's everybody working together. That's your classroom teachers, that's, you know, teaching things, letting students know what bullying is, what do you do if it's happening to you. So it's those kinds of things at that classroom level. But then, if a student is involved in bullying, then that might rise to the level of you do need that person, that counselor or that trained person who knows how to have that follow-up conversation. Or investigate the bullying that's happening. And then it would involve administrators because there may be some discipline things that need to happen or some actions that would be an administration decision to be made. And then of course when anything's happening with your child's school, you want to involve the family with that as well. So they know what's happening. So, it's not just that one you know highly trained person, you really wanna have training for everybody at the school. So that they all know what bullying is, what they can do to prevent it, what they do if it does happen, so everybody working together is really the key and what research tells us works. 

0:14:25 William Moyers
And what's been your experience in that regard? Are students reluctant to get involved in some sort of program like Olweus? Or is there a constituency that says, you know, I don't—I'm not being bullied, I'm not a bully, I don't wanna be involved. How does that—how do you integrate that into the community, class, school setting?

0:14:47 Jan Urbanski
There definitely is that underlying you know 'it's not happening to me, it's an embarrassment, I don't know what to do about it.' Or there's also that piece of 'I'm not gonna be tattle tale, I'm not gonna snitch on people.' So you do have those pieces that exist, but when you put that evidence-based program into place, then you're putting all kinds of components in that are kinda safety measures that have that student's back. So if a student reports something and nothing is done or something inappropriately is done, yeah, they may never report again and have that same feeling. But if you have those pieces in place, and everyone in the school's been trained on how to take a bullying report and what to do about it, and the students know that's going to happen, then you're really changing that climate and changing that social norm. So that it's okay to talk about bullying, it's okay to report bullying, knowing that there is an adult in the school who's going to address that. And hopefully make it better. Certainly not addressing it appropriately is not going to make the situation better, which is often a fear of the victims of bullying. 

0:16:00 William Moyers
Last question for this edition of our podcast. How do you measure success? [grins] I mean there's always that struggle with prevention, how do you measure something that you've prevented? [chuckles] But I know that that outcomes are critical to Olweus and I know they give it the credibility that it has. So, talk a little bit about how you know it works. 

0:16:23 Jan Urbanski
Sure! Well the first piece and what the 40 years of research really has focused on is the Olweus Bullying Questionnaire. And that's an anonymous survey that's done for students in grades 3 through 11. And it's really looking at what kind of bullying is happening, where it's happening. But it's also looking at some school climate kinds of things in terms of, you know, what's the perception of how adults are responding. You know, what are your feelings when you see bullying happening. So, looking at success, an initial thing would be looking at your data from your Olweus Bullying Questionnaire. So you're wanting to see reductions in bullying, and you're wanting to see increases in those kinds of things that, you know, liking school, teachers who are responding when something's happening. So, the school climate kinds of things you wanna see those increase while you're seeing the reductions in being bullied and the reductions in bullying others. It does measure both of those. But there are some other things you're also wanting to look at just general school discipline data. You wanna look at your absentee data. We know that kids who are victims of bullying don't like school so they tend to be absent a lot. So if you're addressing the bullying you would hopefully see that increase.

Even looking at increased academic achievement. When, you know, students are feeling safe in school, there's more time on task. They're paying more attention to learning. Teachers aren't spending as much time disciplining. They have more time to teach. So an evidence-based program like the Olweus program would give that additional time to teachers and students. 

0:18:00 William Moyers
Jan Urbanski, thank you so much for your good work with Olweus and in helping to improve the minds and the bodies and the spirits of students, and their families and schools and communities. Thanks for being with us today. [smiles]

0:18:14 Jan Urbanski
Well thank you, thank you for inviting me and allowing me to share information! [smiles]

0:18:18 William Moyers
Thank you. [turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for joining us for another edition of this Let's Talk podcast series. We'll see ya again soon. [smiles]

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