Skip to main content

Positive school climates can reduce bullying

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on November 21, 2013)

We are hearing a lot about bullying in surprising locations such as professional sports and the workplace. Without minimizing concern for those affected, most of us remain more worried about bullying as it occurs in the lives of young people and the students in our schools. If we can stop bullying there, perhaps we can keep it from infiltrating adult life, as well.

In September, we learned of the tragic suicide of a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who was cyberbullied by fellow students for more than a year, even after changing schools. Two of her harassers, ages 14 and 12, have since been arrested on felony charges of aggravated stalking.

Last month, the Tennessee Department of Education released its first-ever Bullying and Harassment Compliance Report, detailing 7,555 reported cases of bullying in Tennessee public schools during the 2012-13 academic year. Seventy-three percent of those reports were later confirmed as bullying. Of these, more than 9 percent involved sex or gender-based discrimination, and more than 7 percent featured the use of electronic technology.

Davidson County reported 923 accusations of bullying to the state. Unlike most other districts, Davidson did not classify the nature of the specific cases or whether cyberbullying was involved.

Even teachers are not immune to threats of violence. In a Web-based survey of nearly 3,000 teachers by the American Psychological Association, 80 percent reported at least one incident of being threatened in the previous year. Of these, 94 percent were initiated by students. Forty-four percent of respondents said they had been physically attacked.

So how can we reduce the scourge of bullying in our schools, locally and nationally?

My colleague Maury Nation says that schools need to create environments that address the social, emotional and developmental needs of students.

“Bullying is less likely to occur in schools that create climates that allow teachers to cultivate positive relationships with students, and in schools that create opportunities for students to have a voice in shaping the school environment,” Maury says.

Through Tennessee’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) project, Maury and other Peabody faculty and students are working with more than 100 high schools to identify and implement best practices for reducing bullying and promoting a positive school climate.

S3 efforts and other research show that “zero tolerance” programs often prove counterproductive in reducing school violence. Rather, tiered models of responsiveness that focus resources at increasing levels of intensity to encourage positive behavior appear to be more effective.

Teachers who identify and build on student strengths will have more success than those who are always in the position of reacting and punishing. Recognizing and building on strengths helps to keep students academically engaged — the hallmark of a school that is functioning successfully.

Finally, we can’t ignore the climate outside of school. Supporting community organizations that work with youths, reducing poverty and strengthening families are all needed to help our students feel safe.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.