• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 13th January, 2014

School bullying: why it matters to know who you are dealing with

strong>Schools around the world have increasingly adopted policies and practices designed to prevent bullying. However, failure to recognize differences between the experiences and reactions of students risks making interventions less effective than intended. Researchers at the University of Binghampton used a sample of 1822 12 to 14-year olds attending middle schools in New York State to discover how risks of being bullied and responses to bullying varied. The ten schools were in a range of locations – urban, suburban and rural – and were all receiving a Safe and Healthy Schools Grant, funded by the US Government that promotes anti-bullying and other student support measures.Two questionnaires were used to gather information on student’s experiences of bullying, victimization and of trying to help victims. Information regarding school avoidance, depression and aggression was also collected. Using the statistical technique known as Latent Class Analysis, the researchers identified four main profiles of bullying-related risks:• Students who had no experience or only a limited risk of being bullied (39.4 per cent) • Victims of bullying (32 per cent). • Students with experience of bullying both as a victim and perpetrator (16.6 per cent). • “Multiple risk” students who, in addition to being the most bullied, were at increased risk for depression, externalizing problems and missing school (12 per cent).The analysis also found that students who experienced the most bullying were those who received least support from their teachers. In addition, African American and Hispanic students were less likely to simply “take it” when bullied and more likely to respond actively to attempted intimidation.The researchers draw their conclusions in the context of the Response-To-Intervention (RTI) services framework being applied in these and many other American schools. A three-tier approach combines “universal” support services for 80 per cent of students with more intensive, small-group services for 15 per cent and intensive services for 5 per cent. Thus, six of the research schools were implementing the evidence-based Olweus bulling prevention program, and most were also providing individual and group support services delivered by social work interns. In addition, all schools had a social worker in post that could refer students to project services.The authors are drawn by their analysis to challenge models of bullying that have typically classified those involved in bullying as either “victims”, “perpetrators” or “victim-perpetrators” groups. Using their findings, they suggest that the “Multiple Risk” group is not only larger than recognized by the RTI framework for Tier 3 services, but also in particular need of additional support from parents and caregivers.And while other students who have been bullied might benefit from more targeted (Tier 2) social work interventions, it appears that perpetrator-victims are in need of “wrap-around” services responding to their experiences as victims, as well as behavioral interventions. In other words, Tier 3 services.As a further challenge, the research casts doubt on the implementation of “bystander” approaches that encourage students who witness bullying to intervene or report what happened to an adult. In the New York schools only a third of students in the “no risk” category –often considered fertile ground for such strategies – said they would respond to bullying in that way. Interestingly, it was students in the “multiple risk” and “perpetrator-victim” categories who appeared most likely to provide a victim with support. Yet the history of aggression among students in these groups also created a risk they would retaliate inappropriately, leading to school disciplinary action or being labelled by unsympathetic teachers as “trouble makers”. The researchers emphasize that their modelling is exploratory. But they, nevertheless, raise the possibility that anti-bullying programs based on mistaken assumptions could backfire – especially if victim-perpetrators and those with multiple behavior problems are denied targeted support. Their unsettling final warning is that school bullying interventions should be implemented with prudence “because even the best intended carry a potential for harm”.***********Reference: Lawson, M.A., Alameda-Lawson, T. Downer, J. & Anderson, E. (2013) Analyzing sub-population profiles and risk factors for school bullying. Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 973-983.

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