Your Bullied Child or Teen

Your son or daughter is being tormented by a group of students at school. Snide comments, nasty rumors, “eye-rolling” have all become part of your child’s life. Your child has become increasingly depressed. Often, your child does not want to go to school.

When you discussed these concerns with the principal, you may have heard such comments as, “They are just joking.” “Your child is overreacting.” “Things like this happen. Your child needs to learn to deal with it.” “If your child would stop (describe behavior), this wouldn’t happen.” Or the principal may have punished the students being hurtful, but, predictably, this only made things worse for your child. Now your child is begging you not to contact the school.

Bullying Prevention is Not Working

What schools are doing to stop bullying isn’t working. It isn’t that most schools aren’t trying or don’t want to stop bullying. The problem is that what schools are doing is not effective.

In 2011, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more (U.S.Department of Justice). This rate has not significantly declined since 2005. Of this number, over 540,000 students say this happens “almost daily.”

The students who are most typically targeted are those who are obese, have a minority sexual orientation or identity, or have disabilities. Other students who also report bullying include racial, national origin, and religious minorities.

The Ineffective 20th Century Approach

The bullying prevention approach required by most state bullying prevention statutes requires rules against bullying, increased supervision, telling students to report, and punishing “the bully.” Schools are generally complying with these statutes. School staff think what they are doing is effective.

The problem is that the 20th Century “adult-centric,” approach will never be effective.

Most bullying is motivated by a desire to achieve social dominance among peers. The hurtful acts most often occur outside of adult presence, especially online. The majority of students do not report bullying–likely because the majority think school staff make things worse when they intervene. Unfortunately, the research backs up students’ perspective.

The common bullying prevention approach focuses on only one kind of student, socially marginalized students who face multiple risks. Punishment will not stop these students. They need a comprehensive system of support to address their multiple risk challenges.

Schools tend to ignore the hurtful acts of the “socially motivated,” hurtful students–the “social climbers” who are considered “popular.” These students are highly skilled in being hurtful, but behave appropriately in the presence of staff. They need to be held accountable in a manner that stops and remedies the harm.

Protecting Your Bullied Child or Teen

If your child or teen is being bullied or harassed and your school is not effectively responding to this situation, there are additional steps you can take.

You must know that civil rights laws provide protection for students against discriminatory harassment based on sex or gender expression, disabilities, and race and national origin. At the state level, religion is also generally protected. Also, under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, schools must address the concerns of students with disabilities who are either being or engaging in bullying through an Individual Educational Plan meeting. Unfortunately, if your child or teen does not fall into one of these groups, his or her legal protections are less stringent.

It is important to document what is happening in accord with these questions:

  • Has your child or teen been the target of hurtful acts by another student or students? Describe the situations that have occurred.
  • Have the hurtful acts been pervasive or persistent? Document the number of students (and possibly staff) involved and the frequency.
  • As a result of these hurtful acts:
    • Is your child or teen emotionally distressed? Document indicators of such distress. Obtain a letter from your pediatrician to back this up–very important.
    • Has there been a significant interference in the ability of your child or teen to receive an education and/or participate in school activities? Document indicators of this interference.

If the answers to questions 1-3 are “yes,” then this constitutes bullying.

  • Is your child or teen a member of, or perceived to be a member of, a protected class as defined by federal or state civil rights laws?
  • Are the hurtful acts related to your child or teen’s membership, or perceived membership, in this protected class?

If the answers to questions 1-5 are “yes,” this constitutes discriminatory harassment, a violation of civil rights laws.

  • Has this been reported to the school or have staff been present? Thoroughly document the response of school staff to such incidents, whether witnessed or reported, and the effectiveness or outcome of that response.
  • Are there aspects of the school climate that appear to be reinforcing the disparagement and harassment of students? Identify and document such concerns.

Present this documentation to your principal, but if he or she is not effectively responsive, take this up the chain of authority. This chain includes:

  • The district safe schools coordinator, and the civil rights compliance officer (if civil rights are implicated) and the special education director (if your child is on an IEP or 504).
  • The same staffing at your state department of education. State departments also provide the ability to file a civil rights or special education complaint.
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

When seeking to resolve these situations, do not push for a suspension of the hurtful students. Insist that any social, emotional challenges faced by a student being hurtful be effectively addressed. Insist that hurtful students be held accountable in a restorative manner that stops the hurtful acts and remedies the harm to your child. Also focus on how you can help your child become more resilient.

Most importantly, insist that your school focus attention on the quality of the school climate and the social, emotional, and cultural competencies of the students. Addressing the culture of bias that fuels these hurtful acts is the best long term solution.

Ensuring Student Voice

The individuals who have the greatest insight into your school’s climate, the current challenges related to peer aggression, and the effectiveness of school efforts in reducing such hurtful behavior are walking around schools wearing jeans, with smart phones in their hands or pockets.

I was talking about my new book, Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere) to a parent in the waiting room for our children’s dance class and was explaining my concerns that the “rules and punishment” approach schools are using to try to stop bullying is not working.

A 5th grade girl, waiting for her mom, spoke up. “Of course it’s not working,” she said. “They tell you bullying is against the rules, but kids bully when adults aren’t watching. And they tell you to tell an adult. But if you do, the other kids will consider you a loser and the bully will get back at you.”

So I asked further, “Can you tell me why some kids get bullied?” “Yeah, they are usually a bit different, but it is more than that. They are more scared and don’t know how to stand up for themselves,” she explained.

“What about the kids who bully others?” I asked. “Sometimes they are doing this because they want to prove they are ‘cool’ and ‘all that,’” she responded. “But other times they are kids who have lots of other problems, like they have a hard time learning and concentrating. They are ‘angry kids.’”

“Do you ever try to help kids who are being bullied?” I asked. “Well, I want to,” she said. “But it is dangerous. ‘Cool’ kids will just get with a bunch of their friends and spread nasty rumors about you. The ‘angry’ kids could get into a fight with you. So usually I try to be friendly to the kid being picked on some other time. But I don’t say anything to the bully, even though I want to.”

“Would you tell an adult if you saw someone being bullied?” I asked. “Not usually,” she responded. “Adults just make things worse.”

In less than 3 minutes, this brilliant young person fully outlined the insights contained in Chapter 1 of Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere).

There are brilliant, kind, and caring young people in every school who can explain to school leadership and staff what is and isn’t working to reduce bullying and limit its harmful effects in their schools. They can also provide leadership within their schools to better create a culture of kindness and respect.

In March 2012, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice entered into a consent decree with the Anoka Hennepin School District in Minnesota to resolve a law suit against the district based on gender-based harassment. The importance of student leadership was emphasized in the press release announcing this decree:

The Departments are especially grateful to the courageous students who came forward in this case and provided invaluable insights that strengthened the Decree. It explicitly provides opportunities for student participation in the District’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts.1

Among requirements set forth in this consent decree were a number of student leadership activities, including:

  • Provide for other opportunities for meaningful student involvement and input into the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts.
  • Establish student leadership programs in middle and high schools to address harassment.
  • Hold focus group meetings between high level administrators and typically targeted students to discuss harassment and school climate.

Why is student leadership and involvement so vitally important? One of the reasons it may be challenging for schools to realize changes are necessary is that staff perceives what they are doing is effective. One study found:

  • While 97% of school staff said they would intervene if they saw bullying, 43% of middle school students and 54% of high school students reported they had seen adults at school watching bullying and doing nothing.
  • While 87% of school staff think they have effective strategies for handling bullying, 58% of middle and 66% of high school students believe adults at school are not doing enough to stop or prevent bullying.
  • While only 7% of school staff think school staff make things worse when they intervene, 61% of middle school students and 59% of high school students believe that teachers who try to stop bullying only make it worse.2

The focus in bullying prevention has been on adults taking responsibility for addressing the problem. Far too frequently, this adult-centric mind-set has led to the exclusion of young people from participation.

Envision these two planning scenarios:

Scenario 1:
The school has conducted an annual school climate/bullying survey. The administrative team reviews the data and then has a meeting with school staff to discuss the issues that were raised and develop proposed strategies to address the identified concerns.

Scenario 2:
The school has conducted an annual school climate/bullying survey of staff and students. The administrative team then shares this data with the Student Leadership Team and engages them in a collaborative focus group session to elicit additional student perceptions and insight related to this data and their recommendations on ways the school could be more effective. This insight is turned into a report. Representatives from the Student Leadership Team make a presentation of this report to the school staff and to the other students.

Three Questions:

  • Which approach is most likely to yield the best insight into what is working effectively ~ or not ~ to support positive school climate and limit hurtful incidents in your school?
  • Which approach is most likely to effectively influence any necessary positive change in staff behavior?
  • Which approach will most likely encourage students to view themselves as active partners in creating a positive school climate?


Schools are strongly advised to establish a Student Leadership Team. It is important that this Team include leaders from the various school social groups, especially including representatives from students who are more typically targeted.

One strategy to establish this group would be to use a nominating approach that asks the students to name one student who he or she would feel comfortable approaching to get guidance to deal with a problem. This will enable to school to determine who their compassionate leaders in different social groups are.

Alternatively, this leadership group could be student volunteers who are simply interested in the issue. However, with this volunteer approach, it will be important to reach out to the kinds of students who are more typically targeted and ensure their participation.

Representatives from the Student Leadership Team should participate actively in the school coordinating committee that is addressing positive school relations. Student representatives from each middle and high school should serve on the district’s coordinating committee. Student’s participation must be meaningful.

The Student Leadership Team as a whole should be provided with opportunities to evaluate and provide insight into the school data and to formulate recommendations that their representatives can convey further.

1 http://www.White
2 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L. & O’Brennan, L.M. Bullying and Peer Victimization at School: Perceptual Differences Between Students and School Staff. School Psychology Review, Volume 36, No. 3, pp. 361-382 (2007).