Educators work tirelessly to ensure safe and nurturing learning environments for all students, yet most of us recognize that bullying remains a deeply entrenched problem in schools. Victims of bullying continue to report posttraumatic stress, psychological damage, and a host of social anxieties as a direct result of schoolmates’ injurious words or actions (Luo, Ban, Qiu & Liu, 2023).
During my 30 years as an educator and administrator, I have adjudicated countless acts of bullying and can confirm that, despite decades of national campaigns, new local policies, and other well-funded initiatives, this problem continues to profoundly afflict victims’ lives, inhibiting their learning, and often impacting them long after they graduate.
So, what do we do about it? We have all read studies that call for more kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness in schools. Of course, no one disputes these essential ideals. But is it enough? Researchers are less sure about what else, if anything, can or should be done. Like each of you, I want to establish and maintain a school community that prioritizes safety, wherein students feel surrounded by people who care, listen, are generally good-natured, and uphold an ethic of reciprocity. That said, school officials should do more to protect students.
This brief article alone cannot solve or adequately distill the propagating factors of school bullying; however, I am pleased to provide an abbreviated description of the comprehensive three-step ‘wrap-around’ process we implement at North Cedar Academy (NCA) in Ladysmith, Wisconsin.
The term ‘wrap-around’ refers to our collective effort to prevent (beforehand), take action (during), and reflect on (afterward) instances of bullying in our school. Each step is made up of several sub-steps not included here. All are equally necessary for ensuring our bully-free learning environment.
Step 1: Preventative discussion
We begin each school year by training/retraining staff to recognize and act upon the many early signs of bullying. We clarify our school culture, introduce our ‘zero tolerance’ philosophy, and share our expectations regarding staff responsibilities to take early action to protect any student who is perceived to be a victim. Simultaneously, we speak directly with students on our definitions of bullying, including discussing an imbalance of power and repetition of unwelcomed words of actions.
We discuss the various types of bullying, spending considerable time on social media. We clarify our non-negotiable behavioral expectations and encourage older students to lead by example.
It is worth noting that, as a private boarding school, we can implement policies or procedures that might not work in the public sector. Students are presented with a behavior contract that outlines our anti-bullying stance and various degrees of offense and consequences and includes a statement informing them that, while we value and respect their privacy, we can and will monitor their social media accounts if warranted. Of course, we maintain open lines of communication with parents throughout all three steps.
Step 2: Taking immediate, aggressive, and decisive action
We approach bullying with a ‘see something, say something’ approach, and invite all students and staff to make concerns known in a confidential, low-stress setting. All complaints and observations are prioritized and investigated immediately, and if it is determined that bullying is taking place, we take prompt action.
There is a private school advantage in this regard as well, as suspension and other deterrents, some of which carry heavy financial implications, are always on the table. We conduct private meetings with both the bullied and the bully and consult parents as appropriate. We use the information gathered to determine the best course of action and, if necessary, enact consequences ranging from an apology letter to a behavior plan to formal expulsion.
Step 3: Reflection
In the weeks that follow a bullying incident, we perform periodic check-ins with both the bullied and the bully. If deemed helpful, we engage them in reflection activities. A reflection of this nature provides us with an avenue for stimulating deep thinking about the incident, understanding the motivations behind the hurtful actions, reiterating the emotional and psychological impact on the victim, and exploring alternative strategies for conflict resolution.
We revisit our expectations for personal responsibility in this step and hope the bully will acknowledge their responsibility for what happened. Understanding that bullying is seldom a single-occurrence challenge, we also codify and articulate metrics-based behavioral expectations as we advance, again emphasizing personal responsibility.
This article provides a snapshot of the functional and effective anti-bullying stance at North Cedar Academy. We realize this is only one of many possible approaches to effectively addressing this societal blight in our schools. The takeaways should be that our approach is far from reactionary, it is strictly enforced as soon as possible, and it is intended to eliminate such incidents and mentalities now and later.
Our school promises students and their families a bully-free learning environment. We deliver on this promise by providing one-on-one counseling, monitoring student interactions in both academic and non-academic settings, taking immediate action to address violations of school policy, remaining in regular and transparent communication with parents, holding offending students accountable for their actions, and as needed, seeking the assistance of local authorities.
As chief administrator, I assert that our goal is simple and our policy is clear: Our entire community is committed to and prioritizes the eradication of the harmful practice of bullying from our campus and community by any means necessary.
About the Author
Michael Lovorn, Ph.D., is the Headmaster and Executive Director at North Cedar Academy, Ladysmith, Wisconsin.