Avoiding Littleton: The Best Defense
by Chuck Saufler M.Ed.
This article was published in the Journal of Maine Education, Winter 2000/Volume XVI, Number 1, p.15-17
As we have all heard and read in the media accounts and explanations of the shooting tragedies in our nation's schools, "It could happen anywhere." This concept has crept into the psyche of every parent and child in our country and increased our anxiety level about how safe we really are in school.
In response, schools and communities all across the whole USA have assembled teams to create disaster plans and form crisis response teams. Legislatures are considering tighter controls on firearm sales. There is renewed interest in our communities about addressing media and video game violence. Virtually all schools are reviewing their security measures. Many schools are considering metal detectors, uniformed police officers, photo identification security systems, and video surveillance as deterrents to such incidents. Schools are having "lock down" drills. "Lock down" is a procedure that comes directly from our correctional facilities. Is this where we're heading? Are we going to turn our schools into mini correctional facilities in the name of security? Is this the vision for schools in the new millennium? Let's hope not. Let us instead think of long term preventive measures which should make the above paraphernalia associated with crime and criminals an anathema to our schools.
As educators looking toward the new millennium we have to pause to consider what can be done to prevent these tragic events from happening again. We have already laid the groundwork for these measures and it comes directly from the research on school climate, bullying, aggression, and violence prevention. A common thread in all of the school shootings of the past years is that the majority of the shooters had been bullied and harassed by their peers. They had been isolated from the mainstream culture of their schools and felt as if they were "outsiders". They eventually took revenge on their tormentors as well as others. In all of these situations there was a history of verbal abuse and ostracism perpetrated by peers with school being the primary site for the antagonism. This has brought about a great deal of discussion about bullying and harassment and their effect on school culture and subsequently on students. It has also raised an important question: "What can schools do to keep it from happening here?" We can start with the prevention of bullying and harassment in our schools, but we need to begin early. Bullying and harassing behaviors don't spontaneously appear as a result of puberty. They begin early and can be identified as a pattern of behavior at age three (Walker 1993). It makes sense then that we intervene with these behaviors early on. We need to start early developing the skills necessary for students to be able to both recognize the power of their personal participation and how participation can affect and change the climate of a community.
When continually faced with bullying behavior by their peers, victimized students report fear of going to school, fear of riding the bus, physical symptoms of illness, progressively lower levels of self-esteem, and diminished ability to learn in school. As young adults victimized students have lower self esteem and higher levels of depression. Children's exposure to violence and maltreatment (including verbal abuse) of others is significantly associated with increased depression, anxiety, anger, post traumatic stress, alcohol use, and low grades (Eron 1987).These factors have a tremendous impact on school climate.
Since 1997 the Maine Project Against Bullying has been mounting an effort to eradicate bullying from Maine schools. MPAB spent much of the first year reviewing research and current materials on bullying. This literature review yielded a wealth of evidence that supports early intervention and prevention efforts. The second step was to establish baseline data about bullying for Maine. The MPAB, in collaboration with the Muskie Institute and the University of Southern Maine, completed a survey on bullying of third graders in Maine elementary schools during February 1999. One hundred twenty seven schools returned the survey providing a sample of 4496 subjects, 28% of all third grade students in Maine. The results of this survey were released in the Fall of 1999.
Schools that participated in the survey were eligible to have a team from their school receive bullying prevention training provided by MPAB in the fall/winter of the 1999-2000 school year. MPAB is also established an on-line database of anti-bullying resources which are available on this web site. Unfortunately the funds have not been available to update this data base since 2000 so some of this information is a little dated.
In the networking between MPAB and the Maine Principals Association at the two Maine Principals Association conferences in 1998-99, it became apparent that the frequencies of bullying and inappropriate aggressive behaviors as reported by principals at these conferences were cause for concern. Educators must help the students demonstrating these behaviors as early as possible to prevent them from developing more troubling behaviors later in life. Children who bully are not "responsible and involved citizens".
How do we start to address bullying in our schools? Adult behavior is crucial to the success of any anti-bullying initiative. All adults in school, as well as at home, must become aware of the extent of the bully/victim problems in their own school. These adults must engage themselves in a focused and sustained manner in changing the situation. There exists a number of bullying prevention programs that could help schools restructure the existing school environment to reduce opportunities and rewards for bullying behavior. Statewide promotion of proven anti-bullying programs which are supported with staff training and continuing assistance in implementation would be a powerful intervention toward eliminating bullying and harassment in Maine schools.
At the center of any approach to bullying prevention are those individuals most directly affected by and responsible for bully/victim situations - the students in the school. Most students are neither bully nor victim. They are however witnesses to the bullying that takes place around them. Maine's elementary students need to be educated about bullying and what one can do if one is the victim of a bully and what one can do if one sees another student being bullied. Our focus needs to be on creating a caring majority of students. Working with our elementary students on this issue offers a powerful opportunity to teach the "power of personal participation to affect the community and demonstrate participation skills". This can be achieved through implementing classroom curriculum from proven bullying prevention programs. To stop bullying we need to shift the power from children who bully to the caring majority of students.
The message that, "Bullying is not acceptable in our school/class and we will see to it that it comes to an end" (Olweus and Limber 1999, p.17), must be communicated in every school in Maine. Schools need to adopt and consistently enforce school wide codes of conduct. Students who bully need assistance if they are to be prevented from becoming a burden to our society as young adults. Students who are bullied need early identification and appropriate intervention to help them change these destructive patterns of behavior.
Bullying research shows that one of the primary causes of bullying is a home life characterized by emotional frigidity, chaotic organization, social isolation, frequent parental conflict, ineffective child rearing practices and rigidity in maintaining family order (Olweus1980). School and community resources need to be made available to these families of children who bully to help them develop a home environment characterized by warmth, positive interest, and involvement by adults. They need assistance in setting firm limits to unacceptable behavior and applying non-hostile, nonphysical negative consequences consistently in cases of violations of rules and other unacceptable behaviors. Access to school based mental health services would be a tremendous benefit to these families.
Our public schools are continually challenged by societal and community influences. As long as we have violence in our communities we will have the potential for violence in our schools. I recognize that all Maine schools do not have access to all resources. However, with a firm commitment from school staff, parents and other community stake holders, I believe that all Maine schools can produce responsible and involved citizens who will create and maintain an environment that will carry us safely through the new millennium.
- Batsche, G. and Knoff, H. (1994). Bullies and their victims: Understanding a pervasive problem in the schools. School Psychology Review, 23 (2), 165-174.
- Eron, L.D. (1987). Aggression through the ages. School Safety, Fall, 12-16.
- Olweus, D. (1980). Familial and temperamental determinants of aggressive behavior in adolescent boys: A causal analysis. Developmental Psychology, 16, 644-660.
- Olweus, D. (1991). Bully/victim problems among school children: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. In D.J. Pepler & K.H. Rubin (Eds.), The development and treatment of childhood aggression. (pp. 411-448). Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.
- Olweus, D. (1993a). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge: Blackwell.
- Olweus, D. and Limber, S. (1999). Bullying Prevention Program. C&M Press, Denver, Colorado.
- Walker, H.M. (1993). Anti-social behavior in school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 2 (1), 20-24