6+ Steps to Addressing Bullying When It Occurs

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Back to the main Bully Prevention Guide.

Many of us know how it feels when someone repeatedly harasses or intimidates us from our days of being in school. In fact, we still may be in a work environment or live in an area where this happens to us as adults. Nothing infuriates us more than dealing or choosing not to deal with these individuals. The words and actions are engrained in our brain and we can remember these incidents as if they occurred yesterday. When we have our own kids, we pledge to never let them endure this spiteful, and what we feel can be preventable, actions. Unfortunately, bully behavior will probably never be eliminated, but it definitely can be decreased. We can also empower our kids with strategies on how to get it stopped.

Unfortunately, most incidents are not visible to staff. If they are visible, all staff members are required to take action immediately. The time gap between the occurrence and when it is addressed is vital. The sooner we can address the bully behavior, the more effective we can be in "going to solution." Most of the time the bully behavior is being reported to us after the fact. Additionally, most bully behavior reports come to us with just the generic phrase, "Johnny is bullying me."

Inspired by the research and work compiled by Dr. Dan Olweus, Olweus Bully Prevention Program, here are 6+ steps we can use to consistently address bullying when it occurs. I say "6+" because it may take more than just these 6 steps. A high percentage of incidents can be solved with these 6 steps, but there are going to be incidents that require more. I will conclude with one such situation where 6 steps was not enough and law enforcement was necessary! Furthermore, these 6+ steps can only be successful if you have a Bully Prevention Program in your school…like Olweus.

PU #15 - Meet 1:1

Meeting one-on-one with the student that is reporting is your first step to getting the bully behavior stopped. Many times teachers and administrators don't spend an adequate amount of time in this initial first step, and subsequently, they spend more time addressing the bully behavior than anticipated. I would like to say there is always more to the story than just the first phrase reported to you, "Johnny is bullying me." It would be very efficient if we could then go and hand out consequences to Little Johnny and feel like the incident is solved. It is NEVER that easy! This is where parents and community members may become frustrated. Their son or daughter reported to them that they are being bullied, so a teacher or administrator should hand out consequences immediately. While I agree there will probably be consequences involved, there is a whole lot more research, investigating, and re-teaching that needs to occur in order for the bully behavior to stop!

When we meet one-on-one with the student who has been bullied, we always meet with only one student at a time. Sometimes we get multiple students who want to report the bully behavior. This is fantastic as it builds our case, but we need to hear from each student individually so we can build the story and situation. Many times the story changes when more than one student is the room…either the story is exaggerated, or it is diminished from what really occurred. Seldom do we put the student being bullied in same room with the student whom is bullying (We would never put a person who commits an offense in the same room as the victim when solving a crime; only if the student wanted to repair the relationship).We must dig deeper and find out what bully behavior is being exhibited. We then can address and build a plan for success. *NOTE: We refrain from using the word, "victim," as we feel a victim infers they have no power. We want to empower the person being bullied and NOT give them a "victim's mentality."

When we question the student we need to find out some specific information. Here are questions we use that have been successful, but are not limited to the following:

  • What bully behavior is occurring? (Dig deeper to what is actually occurring; the answer is NOT simply, "Johnny is bullying me.")
  • Why do they believe it is considered bully behavior? (This important as some incidences are not bullying behavior…it could be rough and tumble play, isolated spiteful incident, etc…)
  • Is this repeated behavior or is it a random act of spitefulness? (Further establishing whether the incident is bully behavior, as well as re-teaching the student about our school's definition of bully behavior.)
  • Is there an imbalance of power? (This question is age dependent and can be determined by what you have already taught your students in your school; this may remain at the adult level.)
  • Where is the behavior occurring? (Is there proper supervision in this area? Can we add more supervision? Can we set up any other protocols or procedures for this area?)
  • Who was involved in the incident? (Was there more than one student exhibiting bully behavior?)
  • Where there other witnesses? What did they do? (Were there bystanders and what did they do when the bully behavior occurred?)
  • Where was the closest adult? (Did the student report to the closest adult, their teacher, or the most trusted adult, etc…?)
  • What happened before and after the incident? (These two questions don't get asked as frequently as they should be. This information gives you a better picture into what was going on in this location, as well as how the incident ended…vital information in order to get the bully behavior stopped.)
  • What did the student do to address the bully behavior? (This is important to empower the student. Sometimes, the student can state, "Please stop," and the student who is exhibiting the bully behavior now understands that it is unwanted. In addition, the student is setting boundaries for how they want to be treated. This is an important skill we will use the rest of our lives).
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PU #16 - Collect More Investigation Information, Repeat…

In order to get the bully behavior stopped we must collect as much information as we can. Missing one piece of information can lead to repeated occurrences, not addressing the real issue, or wrongfully implementing unintended consequences.

In our school we hand out a new notebook every year for all employees where they can write down incidents of bully behavior, all parent contact, and any other important information that needs to be documented. Talking with the student's classroom teacher can give you more of an insight into the incident. You will find if there is already a pattern of bully behavior, or if this is the first occurrence. Ultimately, involving teachers who have a relationship with the student is important. Whether this is new information for the teacher, or it something they have already dealt with in the past, getting more staff members involved is another key to getting the behavior stopped. We have found that teaming around these students is most effective.

We must also talk with any witnesses, or bystanders, around the incident. We interview these students one-on-one also. Putting all the information together will give us the best idea of what occurred, as well as the perceptions of everyone else around the incident. This could lead to further re-teaching with these bystanders and what they can do to support stopping the bully behavior.

PU #17 - Talk It Through With a Team and Develop a Plan

Many schools who have a Bully Prevention Program have a team of staff members that look at data, discuss school-wide plans, and support teachers in getting the bully behaviors stopped. In our school, it is usually the counselor, principal, and one or two classroom teachers. After the initial investigation has been done, we give the information to the team so everyone is "in the know."

The principal and the counselor are involved in all bully incidents that are deemed level 2 in our school (we have leveled system of discipline: level 1 is handled by classroom teachers or aides, level 2 is handled by both teacher and principal, and level 3 is automatically dealt with by teacher, principal and parents and may include threat assessments, police involvement, behavior plans, and more). Once information has been gathered, staff members have been involved in communicating necessary information, a plan can then be developed.

The team supports the counselor and principal in making further decisions in how the bully behavior is going to be stopped. We talk about what we can do as adults: increase supervision, increase consequences, re-teaching opportunities, parent contact, friendship teams, bystander re-teaching, classroom discussions, setting up reporting systems, and more.

PU #18 - Address the Bully Behavior

Addressing the student who exhibits bully behavior is the most important step in getting it stopped. We have initially interviewed the student. We take explicit notes from that conversation. We then let them know we have gathered more information and that we have a plan to support them in getting the behavior stopped. When we use the information gathered, we keep witnesses and bystanders name anonymous. We do use the name of the student who has been bullied so they understand that the behavior is unwanted and needs to stop.

A level 2 bully behavior incident in our school always has the following protocols attached to it: 1) parent notification of both sides, 2) re-teaching, 3) a plan for future incidents, 4) restorative practices (restore relationships if possible), and 5) consequences that mirror the behavior (if it occurs at recess, we need more re-teaching of appropriate behaviors at recess which may mean missing some recesses or in extreme cases, an adult supporting them outside for success).

PU #19 - Implement Plan for Future

Letting the student who exhibits the bully behavior know what will happen to them if it persists is important. Setting out specifically what it will look like for the student can be one strategy that let's students and parents know that we mean business. This may include, but not limited to, the following: 1) further consequences, 2) more parent involvement, 3) further restrictions, and 4) more re-teaching. We let students know that their whole learning environment can be changed and modified if the bully behavior doesn't stop. This can include how and when they transition, where they eat, whether they are on the playground or not, and even where they are getting their instruction. We also make it a point to talk about retaliation. The consequences are even more severe if there is retaliation.

In extreme cases, when a student receives several level 2 discipline referrals and even level 3, the principal updates the SRO (student resource officer). After we have used all the above interventions and nothing has worked, the next step is to involve law enforcement. When using the SRO, making sure upper administration in the district is updated is important as they may become involved in the situation. Personally, I have found success with letting the SRO know early in the process that we are unable to get the bully behavior stopped. Of course, involving the SRO too early can be a waste of their valuable time. I believe the SRO must know that I have tried "x" number of interventions and I am finally coming to them for support. Hopefully the SRO understands this and is ready to take action with the student and parents. Making decisions together will help in getting the behavior stopped.

PU #20 - Follow Up

This may be the most difficult piece to do effectively, the follow up with students. Many times educators set forth with an investigation, hand out consequences, and they feel like the incident has been addressed. Continuing to check in with students who have been bullied is important for several reasons. The staff will learn if the bully behavior has stopped; if it is continuing, we need revisit our plan and our reporting system that we have set up. The student will feel like the staff cares about them and is willing to check in because they care. Making a phone call to parents to check in with them can be powerful, too. It lets them know you care and are engaged in getting the bully behavior stopped.

PU #21 - Police Action Warranted

We are lucky to be in a school that doesn't have to involve police very often for bully behaviors. We like to assure our parents that we can get bully behaviors stopped…but, there are going to be times we can't. We must be ready to use the SRO (Student Resource Office) when all our interventions do not work.

Recently, we had a student who continually made sexual comments towards another student. After addressing it with the student, handing out further consequences, adding restrictions on movement in and out of school, parent involvement, using a lot of time to reteach, increasing supervision, in-school and out-of-school suspensions, classroom changes, and more we concluded we needed further support.

Our first meeting with the SRO came after an out-of-school suspension. This was part of Step 5 above, Plan for Future. We let the student know that another incident would include a disorderly conduct (or harassment) charge and a probation officer would be assigned. Unfortunately, the following week another incident occurred and the student was charged with disorderly conduct. The SRO let the student know from the law enforcement side what the next steps would be if the behavior continues. Every incident in and out of school would have law enforcement involved. Parents filed a restraining order against this student. I would like to say there is a happy ending for the student who bullied, but there is not. There is a happy story on the student who was being bullied; the tools and strategies given to him by staff members and his proactive parents have supported his transition from elementary to middle school.

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Jon Konen