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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Blind Spot of Bullying Prevention

Recently, I had a minor fender bender accident because I failed to adequately check my blind spot while driving my car. I am sure that I am not the only person who has made this mistake.  There are two main reasons for failing to check our blind spots: the road may look clear in the rear view mirror and we have become conditioned to consequence-free lane changing. Those of us who fail to check are not necessarily “bad drivers”; for the most part we follow the speed limit and all the rules of the road. This failure to check is a bad habit we develop.  Unfortunately, we are prompted to change this habit only after receiving dramatic feedback in the form of an accident.
This anecdote serves as an analogy to the current state of affairs regarding bullying in our schools. There are too many tragic “accidents” (not just fender benders) that occur because of bullying.  This is why despite the attention bullying receives in the media; it appears to the public that school leaders are indifferent to the problem.  School leaders, however, want to help but something gets in the way.  They are often surprised that an “accident” could even happen in their school. The problem is a lack of knowledge and training rather than a lack of caring.  Still the suggestion that “they would if they could but they can’t” is not a sufficient excuse.  School leaders need to learn about bullying and how it thrives in their “blind spot”.  They need to learn how to “see it” even when they can’t. They need to know and understand the nature of bullying and how it operates in schools.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists (2003) factsheet on bullying, only 4-5% of bullying is ever witnessed by an adult and according to the 2007 National Crime Victimization report approximately 65% of students who are targets of bullying don’t report it.  Given these facts, school leaders can easily develop a very false sense of security and underestimate the amount of bullying in the school.  These two statistics create the “blind spot” that leaders need to know about.
Often school leaders use traditional disciplinary approaches as their sole strategy for addressing the problem of bullying. These strategies focus primarily on the perpetrators and targets.  They also do little to prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. Bullying requires an understanding of the important role of that bystanders play in affecting the amount and frequency of bullying in a school.  School leaders need to know and understand the difference between bullying and conflict and respond differently to each. Bringing a student who bullies together with the targeted student to work it out as equals is serious mistake.  That will only make life harder for the targeted student.  
Research has also demonstrated that the strategy of simply increasing the severity and harshness of consequences for those students who are caught bullying, is ineffective.  Such decisions and actions can suppress and deter the reporting of bullying.
Who Holds the Key?
Recently on Anderson Cooper’s No Escape from Bullying program, the panelists emphasized the need for training teachers and parents. There was no mention of any training or support for school leaders.  Watching the program, as a former principal for over twenty years, I felt like I was sitting behind a glass window looking at people working on a jigsaw puzzle with the final missing piece sitting right on the table in plain but never noticed.  I felt like shouting, “Please don’t forget training and supporting the people who have the most influence and receive the most blame: the school leaders.”
After a tragic event that occurs as the result of bullying, school leadership receives the blame and criticism of the public.  “The Canadian Commission to Prevent Bullying suggests that, “The success of a bulling prevention program and other violence prevention programs depends upon the commitment, understanding and actions of the principal.  The principal sets the tone and ultimately provides the time, resources and opportunities for the implementation and evaluation of the interventions.” If school leaders hold such influence (and they do), why don’t they receive the training, support and resources they need to improve our schools?
It could be assumed that school leaders don’t require special and specific training or that they would be “immune” to any training that is offered to them.  It could also be assumed that their influence on affecting positive change is a school is minimal and therefore teachers should be the sole recipient of training. I strongly disagree with these assumptions.   School leaders hold the responsibility for making bully prevention a priority for their school community.  They are also responsible for selecting an appropriate program, and formulating policies, rules and regulations pertaining to bullying.  Most importantly, they have the most influence and the accountability for getting the school staff and members of the community involved and supportive of these efforts.
Without the appropriate knowledge and training, schools leaders will be ineffective in preventing and reducing bullying.  Worse yet, their decisions and actions could inadvertently increase the amount of bullying in their schools.
Where the Answer Lies
School leaders need to look at the problem in a very different way:  from seeing bullying, solely as a discipline problem involving a few students, to seeing it as an opportunity to improve the culture and climate of a school for everyone. The Massachusetts Dept. of Health publication, Direct from the Field: a Guide to Bullying Prevention, states: “Research shows the best bullying prevention efforts are comprehensive in nature and address changing the culture of a school.  Schools where bullying is less likely to happen and, and when it does, more likely to be reported and corrected, are schools that promote caring, compassion, and a sense of responsibility among students and adults.”  Seeing the problem differently however, is only a first step in effectively addressing it.  School leaders need to change the culture of their school.   This is easier said than done.
There is no reason why the current knowledge and research available about effective leadership cannot be integrated with the knowledge and research about bullying prevention. This is the type of training and professional development that can educate everyone about those “blind spots” and learn the right habit for checking for them.  The tragic accidents of bullying don’t have to happen. School leaders can learn to use new and different tools to appropriately address the problem of bullying.  Effective school leadership can make a difference in keeping schools safe for everyone.
Progress in bullying prevention depends not just on implementing the right program, but putting the right program in the hands of skilled and knowledgeable school leaders.  Given what we know of the damage that bullying does to an entire school community, we cannot leave our efforts to chance. We must acknowledge the crucial role that school leaders play in bullying prevention and provide them with the professional development they need to make and keep every school a safe place where students can learn to their full potential.

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