How to Build a Bully-Free School

How to Build a Bully-Free School

8 steps to a healthier classroom culture in a bully-free school

In recent blog posts, we have focused a lot on how parents and educators can help bullies and targets on an individual level, but for a school-wide change in bullying, there are broader steps a campus or district can take to promote a healthier classroom culture that breeds respect for all students.

Widespread change requires everyone’s involvement, from the students to the administrators, the school board to the PTA/PTO. Each of these elements will play a role in changing their culture for the better. The only way change can happen is for everyone to take the problem seriously and work together toward the solution.

A change this big will not happen overnight, but there are steps schools and districts can take to facilitate the change they want to see in their students.

1. Promote Heroism

The first thing a school needs to assess is how it encourages students to behave in the face of difficult situations. Do students think of reporting as tattling (a shameful act), or do they see it as a heroic act that can help save another student from further trauma at the hands of a bully? Are students encouraged to speak out about injustices, or are they taught to stay quiet and not rock the boat?

Administrators and teachers can help change this mentality among students in various ways:
  • Praise or reward a student who does report seeing bullying or stands up to the bully
  • Bring in an assembly speaker to embolden bystanders to do the right thing
  • Hang posters and flyers around classrooms and hallways to help promote the message that students can be heroes by standing up for their fellow classmates
  • Create a school-wide dialogue about what bravery and heroism mean in these kinds of situations. Let students know that teachers and administrators expect students to help each other rather than tear each other down. Talk about how doing nothing is the same as participating in bullying.

Students should also take initiative to promote heroism among their peers. Positivity is contagious. Encourage student leaders to make respect and heroism priorities. Most students want to do the right thing. They want to be heroes; they just need someone to show them what that looks like.

2. Teach Compassion

Compassion is the sympathetic desire to help someone in pain. The teenage years are well known as a time of strong emotional responses. Without guidance on how to deal healthily with these strong emotions, teens can come to believe that what they are feeling and their own emotional gratification can outweigh another student’s emotional needs.

Social science, English, and Physical Education classes are all great subjects to help teach compassion. Tie emotional intelligence into these subjects to help students learn not just the facts, but the social and emotional implications that accompany them.

Social Science: These classes provide an amazing opportunity to focus on the people behind the facts. As students learn about history and other cultures, open a discussion on how people differ and how they are the same. Ask what students must have felt during the time and circumstances they were going through. Help them connect the people in the lessons back to their own lives.

English: Reading literature provides an intimate look into the lives and perspectives of other people. Books can be one of the greatest tools in teaching emotional intelligence. Use the students’ assigned reading to open a dialogue about emotional states. Ask students how characters felt when major events happened to them. Ask them how they would have felt if they had been in the character’s shoes. Ask them how they felt when the read emotionally charged passages.

Physical Education: Good sportsmanship is more than the absence of bad behavior. Use P.E. classes to teach students the value of teamwork and helping each other to succeed. Make sure that mocking another student for their performance is not tolerated. Instead, students should help weaker teammates so that their entire team improves. Contrary to common practice, students are actually inspire to perform better when positive reinforcement plays a strong role in training than they do when only negative reinforcement is used. Build a positive team dynamic.

3. Establish a System for Anonymous Reporting

One of the primary reasons students don’t report bullying when they witness it is that they fear that the bully will learn of their involvement and lash out at them. They are more likely to report bullying when they are able to do so anonymously.

One way some schools have successfully decreased bullying is enabling students to text in a tip when they witness bullying. The vast majority of students have cell phones with them at all times. Schools can put in place a system so that students can quickly and anonymously notify the school when and where a bullying attack is taking place.

Schools can also partner with local police departments to put a similar system in place that will alert police to bullying activity. These systems can drastically increase the likelihood that students will report bullying and better enable schools to deal with the problem quickly and effectively.

Another option is to create an online form connected to the school website where students and parents can let school officials know what is going on. The important thing is to have a system in place, inform both students and parents on how to access it, and to thoroughly investigate each report that is submitted. Reporting is only effective as a deterrent if action is taken on the reports.

4. Intervene Immediately

Usually, bullies are careful not to be seen or heard by adults. However, some bullying attacks do happen in front of authority figures. When these do occur, it is essential to intervene immediately. Let the bully know that their behavior will not be tolerated.

Bullying is not a conflict between two people, so it should not be treated as such. Bullying is the exertion of power over another person. While in situations of normal peer-to-peer conflict, it may be beneficial for students to learn to work out their differences, bullying attacks are one-sided. This is not something that should be allowed to just play out. There are no differences to be worked out. The bully needs to be dealt with immediately.

When an adult is not present at the time of the incident and the event is reported, the issue should be dealt with as quickly as possible. This includes any reports from an anonymous reporting system. When investigations into a bullying report are delayed, or consequences put off, it sends the message to the students that being a bully-free school is not priority.

5. Talk to Students One-on-One

When a bullying claim is being investigated, the bully and victim should be approached separately. It is rarely effective to have both in the same room. In fact, sometimes it may result in the resumption of the bullying attack.

It is important to get the story from both parties separately and not put them in a situation where the bully is directly confronted by the victim. Not only will this intimidate the victim so that they are less likely to seek help in the future, but it enables the bully to counter and discount everything the victim says. Typically, bullies have better communication skills than victims, and when given the chance, may try to shift blame to the victim, who they may feel deserved to be attacked.

The best way to confront students is at separate times and possibly separate places. First, sit down with the victim and the victim’s parents if they are involved. Get the story from them. See if they have any documentation of the bullying. After all of the information has been gathered from the victim, then it is time to approach the bully for their side of the story. Sometimes it is necessary to talk to friends and bystanders. Those conversations should also take place individually rather than in a group.

6. Model Respect and Calm

An environment of tolerance and respect must start at the top. Adults must lead students by example through healthy interaction with others and good conflict management skills.

When intervening in a bullying situation, it is important to remain both calm and impartial. Treat both students with the dignity and respect they should show each other. Be firm in ending the attack, but don’t show an emotional response. Try to remain in control of the situation and don’t get drawn into an argument over blame. If you have to, tell them, “This is not a discussion.” Make sure all of the students in the classroom know what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior, and what the consequences will be for bullying.

7. Implement Evidence-Based Programs and Curriculum

According to stopbullying.gov, schools may choose to implement formal evidence-based programs or curriculum. Many evaluated programs that address bullying are designed for use in elementary and middle schools. Fewer programs exist for high schools and non-school settings. There are many considerations in selecting a program, including the school’s demographics, capacity, and resources.

8. Get Training

It is essential to know what to watch out for and what to do once bullying has been identified. Bullying has changed dramatically over the last decade and even seasoned educators can benefit from bringing in an outside expert to help implement and the most effective anti-bullying techniques. Professional development training will provide educators with information on the latest trends in bullying and how to help combat them. It can also help them identify warning signs and how to spot a bully or a victim of bullying and give them practice on how to handle bullying when they encounter it. Training will also help educators distinguish between interpersonal conflict and bullying scenarios.

Learn more about bullying on our bullying topic page.


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