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 House.gov/blog/2012/03/08/us-departments-justice-and-education-resolve-harassment-allegations-anoka-hennepin-s.
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).