5 Reasons Why Schools Have a Difficult Time Stopping Bully Behaviors

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Back to the main Bully Prevention Guide.

It seems rarely that when we, teachers and administrators, investigate a bullying incident that it is cut and dry, black and white, and easy to solve. At times, we find there are two sides to every story, but we want to be empathetic to the student bullied. We put interventions in place, we even dole out disciplinary actions, and we get parents involved. I hope that we are letting the parents know that there were consequences levied and that we are taking care of the situation.

Due to FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act), we are unable to give any more specifics. This is where the community, media, and parents get frustrated with the schools. Media can spin a story to sound like nothing is being done when it comes to a bully incident. Contradictory, most schools have a lot of proactive strategies and inventions in place. Those are the stories we do not hear…what has the school done to be proactive with bully prevention, what are they putting in place to stop current bullying incidents, and how do schools use data from the past to guide their interventions.

This article will focus more on why it is sometimes difficult for schools to investigate bullying behaviors. The purpose is not to provide excuses, but to shed a little more light on how intricate many of these situations truly can be when investigated. An additional and underlying purpose of this article is for educators, administrators, and parents to ask more questions in order to get to an understandable solution for all.

When a teacher or administrator receives a report, starts an investigation, and implements interventions, consequences, and education, many times these five situations arise and make it difficult to solve.

As a refresher, a good definition of bullying from Dr. Dan Olweus, Olweus Bully Prevention Program from Hazeldon Publishing, states,

"Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time."

PU #5 - Bullying vs. Argument

Many of the investigations we conduct we find that students have been arguing with one and another. One student gets upset during the argument and believes that the other person is "bullying" them. In reality, the students were in an argument over a topic and one of them did not like the outcome of the argument.

We must dig deeper into the argument, find out what was going on before the argument, what words were used during the argument, and how each person responded. This is where we find out that the behavior, though it may be intense, was not aggressive behavior, it was not intentional, nor was it an imbalance of power. This argument maybe repeated several times, but does not fit our criteria for bullying behavior. This is not bullying.

To solve arguments we must look at what students were doing before the incident, how they are communicating to each other during the incident, and how did they try to solve it themselves after the incident. Ultimately, as educators we want students to be able to problem solve their own arguments. Unfortunately, many of these students do not have the words and actions in their toolbox to solve them on their own. This is where educators can teach, model, and support students in repairing these relationships and coming up with an effective solution.

PU #6 - Provocative Victim

When we investigate a situation and we determine a bullied student fits the "provocative victim" label, we sometimes struggle to solve the situation. A "provocative victim" is a student many times that has these characteristics (Bullying Prevention Resource Guide from Baltimore City Schools):

  • Exhibits poor social skills and misreads social cues
  • Appear restless, irritable, immature, unfocused, awkward, impulsive, and temperamental
  • Have little tolerance for obstacles or delays
  • Have a difficult time understanding and conforming to rules
  • Fights back against bullies
  • Prolongs the conflict even when they are losing
  • Loses conflicts

First, in our school, we do not use the term "victim." We feel that implies that bullying is happening to them and they have no power. Instead, we talk about the student and discuss the specific bully behaviors that are occurring to that student.

There truly may be bullying behavior towards this student. It is never stated, nor should it ever be stated, that the student "deserves" this bullying behavior or that they should receive it because of how they act towards others. Simply, we must stop all bullying behavior incidents.

When a teacher or administrator investigates an incident between a student who is displaying bullying behavior and a "provocative victim" there inherently will be more time involved. Getting down to the specific bully behavior, understanding the problem that arose, and lastly, discussing how each person handled it can take time.

Stopping the bully behavior from occurring is the first step in getting it solved. Teaching, modeling, and even handing out consequences will be part of the solution.

Then, empowering the "provocative victim" will be the next step. In many cases this student lashes back at the bully. Then investigators hear something similar to this statement from the bully, "Well, he/she did it to me first." Sometimes investigators will dismiss this as an argument and treat it as such. In reality, the bullying incident shows signs of an imbalance of power, probably repeated, and done intentionally.

As educators, we have work to do on both ends. We need to continue to work with the culture of our school building empathy, tolerance, and kindness. We also need to work with our "provocative victim" by educating them. We start by teaching the "provocative victim" what bullying is, how it can be reported, and what tools they use to stop it from occurring. This empowers the student to get it stopped. If all that is unsuccessful in getting it stopped, we want them to get an adult involved before lashing out, and subsequently becoming part of the bullying problem.

Solving incidents regarding "provocative victims" can be the most difficult situations to solve and having conversations with parents may be just as difficult. What do we really need to tell parents? I believe the more we talk with parents about the incidents, the reactions by bother parties, and how each of them tried to solve the situation is a good place to start. Using any data collected over time will also support the conversations with parents. Documented patterns, or one-time events, are good information to support your conclusions when talking with parents. These are complex conversations and talking with colleagues and mentors for advice is recommended.

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PU #7 - Bullying vs. Rough and Tumble Play

When we investigate, we sometimes find out a situation involving students who were getting rough with each other, labeled as bullying. The play usually starts innocently during a game or activity, and then someone gets hurt. Lastly, the hurt student reports that they are being "bullied."

This situation can take some time when investigating…we must get to the bottom of the situation and use teaching, modeling, and even consequences to solve. Interviewing all the students one-on-one who were involved in the situation is important, followed by any witnesses that were around it, as well. This will give the investigator a better idea of what occurred from multiple perspectives.

Once we determine that the situation was students who were playing too rough and someone got hurt, we can teach why the situation is not bullying. Though there might have been aggressive behavior towards another student, the situation may not be intentional to hurt someone, nor done repeatedly. We can teach the hurt student, or student who felt like it was a bullying incident, that this is not bullying, but rough and tumble play. We continue to teach all students the expectations (location, equipment, etc…), the rules of the games or activities they were playing, and how they can avoid the same situation in the future.

Many times the student will go home and report this type of incident as being "bullied." This is where teachers and educators must be proactive with their phone calls home. In our school, we try to call home before a student gets home so we can give the parents the information and even the misinformation that we may need support in correcting. This proactive communication can save a lot of time and education down the road.

PU #8 - Over Usage of "Bullying" Terminology

Teachers and administrators hear the term "bullying" repeatedly throughout the day. We continue to first think about the definition of the word bullying…we ask ourselves, "Is this truly bullying or some other type of unwanted behavior?" We are in constant "education mode:" educating our students, our parents, and ourselves.

We then dig deeper into the situation to find out the exhibited bully behavior. We do this in order to go to solution faster. For example, a student walks up to a teacher and says, "Billy is bullying me." The teacher simply cannot go over to Billy and reteach, model, and hand out consequences. We must learn more about the situation, what bully behavior occurred, and break it down to how each person interacted by reviewing their words, actions, and even body language.

We can then implement interventions that stop and fix the bully behavior from occurring again. We can also teach the student to understand that the situation was truly bullying or if it was another behavior. Having the student understand what happened to them before they go home and report is important. Likewise, parent contact from the school is important in order to team around the students involved in the situation.

As educators, we understand that a simple stare from another student can be deemed as bullying. Covert bullying behaviors are difficult to tackle. Labeling them, interacting with both students involved, setting up interventions, teaching all students involved (as well as the whole class), and develop a reporting a system are good strategies to use to get it stopped.

We constantly look for the imbalance of power, and whether we see patterns of the behavior repeated. In our school, we track the interventions we use, the students we talk to by writing the small situations such as staring, into a notebook for future reference. We can then talk with a student and say this is the fifth incident I have investigated where your name has come up with three different students where you are glaring or staring at peers in class. Using data like this also helps parents understand that measurable data does not lie, that we as educators are tracking these types of behaviors, we are helping keep students safe, and that we are constantly working to make their student a better person, as well as working on the culture of our class and school.

PU #9 - Lack of Parental Knowledge on Bullying

We know that many parents, and even us, were targeted by bully behaviors when they were in school and understand how hurtful bullying can be both physically and mentally. In fact, many of us can still remember incidents from school…we can even see the faces of those bullies from our school experience. Collectively, we do not want that to be the same experience for our children.

In recent years, schools around the world (especially the United States) have taken on the bullies by implementing laws, school policies, and rules to deal with bullying. Policies must be flexible, have a teaching component, and outline what will be done when a bully incident occurs. As you know a Zero Tolerance policy could be crippling to a community without supportive educators in the school. If educators are not willing to put the time into teaching, modeling, and going to solution of incidents, students could receive consequences for unintended actions.

I do believe there is no place in education for bullying. We must have educators that dig deeper, find out what truly is going on, and then teach, model, and support bullied students, as well as the students who exhibit bully behaviors. Educators also have an obligation to inform parents.

Educators must continue to teach the families of our students, as well as the community. We must start with all the positive things going on in our schools, find a way to make this public (social media, newsletters, letters, emails, TV, etc…), and communicate the positive behavior intervention systems we have implemented. We do this because what we communicate and put the most emphasis upon will be how our learning community feels about the school. If the learning community knows and understands the positive behavior interventions we have in place, they know that we are always working on building character, enhancing our school culture, and ultimately making our school a safer place to work and learn.

We then must teach our students and our parents much of the same information about bullying prevention. We must teach what bullying is and what it is not. We must teach how we can communicate with each other in order to solve our problems. Many situations come down to inadequate communication. We find that many situations could have been handled at a lower level of intervention.

Setting up reporting systems for students, as well as parents is the key to getting unwanted behaviors stopped. Students should have at least one trusted adult in the school that they feel they can report a bullying situation. Likewise, parents should be able to talk to someone at school about an incident and know that there is going to be a solution and the bullying behavior stopped. We want parents to know that there is a lot of time and effort put into investigations, as well as into re-teaching, modeling, and communicating with all parties involved (students, classes, school, parents, etc…).

Many times parents call teachers and administrators frequently with the statement such as, "Bobby is being bullied at school." When we hear this, we know we have a lot of work to do. We want our parents and community members to know our first job in all schools: KEEP OUR STUDENTS SAFE. Since that is the foundation of our school, we are not afraid to take on any bullying behaviors and get it stopped. We know that what we do, teamed with parents, can make a difference.

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Jon Konen