The anti-bully pulpit

In an effort to help local schools comply with anti-bullying laws, the Kansas State Department of Education awarded a contract to researchers at the University of Kansas to develop effective anti-bullying policies. In addition to leading workshops, KU will maintain a website with anti-bullying resources and definitions. The workshops will continue across the state — from Garden City to Overland Park — until May 2014.

Anne Williford, the principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor of social welfare at KU, says educators have two specific concerns when crafting a policy: first, creating a safe, stable environment for children, and second, conforming to state law. Another central topic in the workshops — the definitions of bullying according to Kansas law and within the research community — helps teachers and counselors to identify problems in their schools.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds. A bully doesn’t always look or act the way parents and teachers expect. Once confined to face-to-face confrontations in hallways or on playgrounds, bullying has spread to electronic spaces adults sometimes find confusing or inaccessible.

Cyberbullying — circulating electronic images or videos, sending insulting text messages, or harassing others through online games or social media — has become a primary concern for school personnel.

“Some studies have found that victimization rates could be as high as 60 percent when you include all kinds of bullying,” says Williford. “It’s a difficult thing to track, if victims aren’t reporting their experiences to adults.”

Once school personnel have codified definitions for bullying behavior in their schools, the next step is making sure consequences are actually being implemented for aggressors.

“Even if you already have a policy, you have to follow through with it,” says Paula Fite, the co-principal investigator on the project. “You need to be aware that these problems don’t go away when they leave school. You need to address any small bullying events early on so you can prevent the subsequent events that develop.”

Kathy DePaolis, who is pursuing her social welfare doctorate at KU, says that bullying is about power and balance. Traditional bullies may rely on physical size or popularity, but cyberbullies can collect their strength from completely different factors. However, any form of bullying can cause depression, anxiety, isolation, academic problems, or suicidal thoughts in victims.

“Children who bully are pursuing natural motivations to belong,” says Williford. “They want power or status among their friends. We want you to understand the social dynamics of these behaviors.”

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