Bullying and Violence in American Schools

Ellen deLara. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Editor: Nancy E Dowd, Dorothy G Singer, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Sage Publication. 2008.

“The attempt to trace the origin of violence to a single culprit is destined to cover up its complex origin; it is a sacrificial gesture par excellence. It is a matter of finding a scapegoat for a more generalized culpability, a more systemic participation.” — Andrew J. McKenna, philosopher

Bullying, harassment, and emotional violence are prevalent in U.S. schools today (American Association of University Women, 2001; Devine & Lawson, 2004; Espelage & Swearer, 2004; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Rúan, Simons-Morton, & Scheldt, 2001). Although bullying contributes to a socially toxic environment, American adults do not as yet have a good understanding of this pervasive phenomenon. While adults are enormously concerned about serious eruptions of violence, they still tend to take for granted that children are going to be bullied at school and they tend to blame the victim. The belief that if a child is bullied, he did something to bring it on himself is shared by the great majority of adults. Children, themselves, often reflect this sociocultural perspective, saying, in effect, “If you get hit at school, you probably deserve it” (deLara, 2000, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

We have been slow to connect bullying with serious retaliatory actions among students in our schools. While adults were shocked after the tragedy at Columbine High School, when two students shot and killed classmates, a teacher, and themselves, other students across the country, though very upset, were not surprised (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Gaughan, Cerio, & Myers, 2001). Research indicates that many children are afraid of “a Columbine” occurring in their school, or are concerned about other forms of school violence (Aronson, 2000; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Gaughan et al., 2001; National Association of Attorneys General, 2000).

Why are our children afraid in school? In general, inclusion, dignity, and equality are not words that typically describe the climate of schools. There is no country that can say it is “a model of caring” in its public or private schools (Smith, 2003). This is a sad statement given the fact that school is considered by most adults to be the safest place for children. It is often the last refuge for many from a violent home or neighborhood.

School is our children’s workplace, a workplace they must attend despite the conditions. They have no choice. Often these conditions would be both intolerable and illegal in the adult workplace. At the same time, children have far fewer legal protections from bullying and harassment than adults do. While we are still at the “blame the victim” stage about children bullied at school, the adult workplace jettisoned this attitude many years ago.

One way in which children are denied dignity, worth, equality, and inclusion is through the perpetuation of certain myths such as “Boys will be boys,” “Kids are cruel,” “Bullying is a part of life,” and “Hazing is a just a rite of passage.” Of course children can be cruel, just as adults can be. By believing in and holding onto powerful and age-old myths, however, we contribute to and perpetuate patterns that hurt children. Schools inadvertently enable bad behavior among children by believing in these myths. For true change, these fallacies must be challenged.

What is this phenomenon of bullying, harassment, and violence at school? Why is it that children seem to understand it while adults are puzzled? This chapter addresses bullying and school violence by answering several questions: What paradigm makes sense in trying to understand school violence? Who and what is involved in this ongoing and unhealthy behavior? Why does it happen? When and where does it occur during the school day? What can be done? Most importantly, this chapter offers creative solutions generated by students for curtailing the problem of bullying in our schools.

A Paradigm for Understanding School Violence

Currently, researchers are attempting to document the types, forms, perpetrators, victims, profiles, and numbers of incidents of school violence (DeVoe, Peter, Kaufman, Ruddy, Miller, et al., 2003; Vossekuil, Reddy, Fein, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2000). The theoretical frame of reference most often utilized in this research typically comes from the juvenile justice or adolescent development fields. Unfortunately, the intricacies of interactional patterns that result in violence at school are not fully investigated by the usual research paradigms. In contrast, if general system theory, as delineated by von Bertalanffy (1968) and others (Bowen, 2004; Sarason, 2001; Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998), allows for a more holistic and accurate accounting of the experience of safety or violence for children. Moreover, the manner in which various members of the system contribute to or enable the persistence of a hostile environment is most readily understood from a systems perspective.

We need to ask, “Are schools inadvertently supporting or enabling a climate that allows bullying by not looking at the behaviors of everyone in the system?” A systems approach adheres to a holistic view that “the only hope of understanding any particular thing is by placing it in the appropriate system context and following the processes by which it acts” (Greenwood & Levin, 1998, p. 70). Systems seek homeostasis and balance. All systems maintain themselves through both overt and covert rules and norms. Systems will maintain even dysfunctional patterns, such as hostile environments, in the name of preserving homeostasis (Bowen, 2004; Steigelbauer, 1994; von Bertalanffy, 1968; Warren et al, 1998; Whitchurch & Constantine, 1993). Schools, as major functioning systems, are no different (Sarason, 2001). If dysfunctional behaviors or interactions have become habituated in the environment, the perceptions, behaviors, and interactions of everyone in the system need to be taken into consideration for significant change to occur. In our culture, we think in terms of cause and effect and in terms of individual responsibility. Most research on school bullying is aimed at individuals or the interactions of dyads, cliques, and small groups. However, schools, organizations, and communities operate as systems. Certain groups of kids at school are only one part of a system. The other parts are their peers and the adults. The system functions in certain, specific, and often predictable ways with norms and rules and behaviors, some of which are overt, and some covert. All of this makes up a school’s own climate and culture (Rowan & Miskel, 1999; Sarason, 2001). Sometimes, in troubled systems, someone or some group will be scapegoated. The usual candidates are “those troubled kids”—children with emotional problems or special needs children.

Scapegoats and scapegoating are signals of dysfunctional systems. Where present, scapegoats serve a variety of purposes in any group or system. Two primary purposes are to facilitate group cohesion and to obscure group or collective responsibility. The original meaning of “scapegoat” harkens back to times when villagers literally pushed a goat out of town, over a cliff, or in some way sacrificed it as a figurative means of carrying away the blame for the villagers’ troubles. Appointing a scapegoat allows individuals in an organization or system to evade responsibility for any actions they may have taken that contributed to the problems. Further, it allows everyone to continue to behave in the same tried and true ways. No one has to change. In this way, scapegoats and scapegoating are homeostatic mechanisms of dysfunctional systems (O’Hagan, 1993). This concept is especially prevalent in our culture, which is eager to blame someone, and not as eager to take personal responsibility when something goes wrong. The outcome, or “benefit,” of scapegoating for any group is that the system does not need to change.

Definitions of Bullying: Who and What is Involved

Violence at school can take several forms and erupts on a continuum of seriousness. The continuum ranges from psychological intimidation (e.g., group exclusion, starting rumors, sexual gestures) to verbal abuse (name-calling) to physical abuse (hitting, kicking, inappropriate touching, sexual abuse) to life-threatening violence (threatening with a weapon, attempted homicide or suicide). Exclusion from the group and other similar behaviors are often referred to as relational aggression (Mullin-Rindler, 2003). Some regard relational aggression as primarily the territory of adolescent girls (Bonica, Arnold, Fisher, Zeljo, & Yershova, 2003; Crick, 1996; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995); however, there is growing evidence that boys are almost equally likely to engage in this form of bullying (Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Cycle of Violence

It is important to note that there is a cycle of violence. It is relatively rare to find someone who is exclusively a “bully.” More typically, someone else has previously bullied a child who acts as a bully, at home or at school. Consequently, we see a bully-victim-bullying cycle (Widom, 1992). Sometimes, due to immaturity and their level of moral development, students believe that revenge is justified (Fatum & Hoyle, 1996). Unfortunately, the “bully” in most contexts is seen as the child who is physically aggressive, while the child or children who are verbal bullies slip under the notice of most adults.

Whose Definition Should We Use

One of the shortcomings of current research in this area has been the use of adult definitions as well as adult-driven strategies and solutions for overcoming violence. Adults typically define bullying, and most interventions to prevent or curtail bullying are adult-determined (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Harachi, Catalano & Hawkins, 1999; Olweus, 1993a). Students are left out of the process of program development. Their input is not solicited regarding what will be effective, yet many anti-bullying programs rest on student implementation (deLara & Garbarino, 2003). It is critical to understand what students mean by bullying and harassment, and it is crucial that they are involved in the determination of solutions for any program to succeed.

Alternative research efforts allow students, the primary stakeholders at school, to self-define violent situations, exchanges, and interactions in various parts of the school and among various subgroups, including teachers and other adults (Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999; deLara, 2000, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Children’s definitions and perceptions of violence at school are contextual. They are influenced by gender, age, grade level, ethnicity, geographic region, peer group associations, family factors, level of moral development, and individual attribution of cues in the environment (Alloy, Peterson, Abramson, & Seligman, 1984; deLara, 2000, 2002; Fatum & Hoyle, 1996; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Hudley & Friday, 1996; Litke, 1996).

Children define bullying differently than adults do. Children tend to say such things as “He’s picking on me” or “She started a rumor about me” or “He’s following me.” Their language about bullying is more understated than adults. Most surveys and anti-bullying programs use the definition of bullying developed by Olweus (1993a), which states that bullying must be chronic and perpetrated by one or more individuals with more power than the victim. This is simply not the case. Ask any young person who has been held upside down over a toilet bowl by four peers if he or she felt bullied. The answer, of course, is “Yes.” That same child or teenager feels intimidated by those peers for a very long time, even though the incident happened one time and was, therefore, not chronic. Chronicity, or an adult attempt to figure out power differentials, should not be included as factors in any definition of bullying.

Specific Forms of Bullying

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of bullying. Sexual harassment can appear in many guises, from unwanted remarks to dating violence to stalking. In all of its forms, it interferes with healthy social development and academic success (Fineran & Bennett, 1998). Both girls and boys report high rates of being sexually harassed at school—83% of girls and 79% of boys (AAUW, 2001). Half of the students in the AAUW survey admitted to sexually harassing someone else. In the same sample of over 2,000 children, 38% said that teachers and other school employees sexually harass students.

The situation is worse for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) students. GLBTQ adolescents are treated very badly in our schools (Elze, 2003). They are five times more likely to miss school for fear for their safety or to have been threatened with a weapon than are heterosexual kids (Garofalo, Wolf, Kessel, Palfrey, & DuRant, 1998). Human Rights Watch (2001) found that GLBTQ students spend much of their time trying to figure out how to be safe in school. As a result, nearly one-third of GLBTQ teens drop out of school due to bullying, harassment, and fear for their safety at school (Lambda Legal, 2002). Unfortunately, these children cannot always find refuge with the adults at school. Human Rights Watch (2001) found that adults often turn their backs, encourage, or participate in the abuse. This is a clear example of systemic shunning and shaming (Scott, 1995).


Hazing, with its full range of demeaning behaviors, has a long history in many societies. Hazing has been traditionally associated with entrance into fraternal organizations. Young men and women eager to join exclusive groups have allowed themselves to be subjected to all manner of treatment by members of the sought-after club. The inherently human need to belong promotes willingness to suffer whatever it takes to be accepted (Guynn & Aquila, 2004).

The extent to which tormentors and their victims would go in the name of traditional hazing was seen in 2003 at the so-called “Powder Puff Football” event in Illinois. During this activity, upper-class students kicked, punched, and tormented their blindfolded younger peers in the name of “tradition.” The school and parents (even those who provided alcohol for the event) disclaimed any responsibility for the actions of those involved, especially since the younger students had “volunteered” to be part of the initiation (Napolitano, 2003).


A relatively new form of bullying has developed along with advances in technology. Through cyber-bullying, children are able to torment one another in relative anonymity on cell phones and computers. Instant messaging (IM), personal Web sites, and Web logs (blogs) allow a new and pervasive form of nastiness by adolescents toward one another (Blair, 2003). Without having to see the devastation on the face of the other person, it is easier to deliver a psychological assault. According to some psychologists, children say things in these venues that they would never say face-to-face and often have no idea of the level of harm inflicted (Harmon, 2004). Out of the view of adults and with little chance of detection, adolescents are able to minimize any harm that might accrue from their behavior online. Further, they tend to “equate the legality of behavior with the ethics of behavior” (Berson, Berson, & Ferron, 2002, p. 66). In other words, for many teens, if it is legal, it is okay, regardless of any moral or ethical concerns.

Exposure to Bullying: How Many are Involved

It is difficult to make an absolute statement about the number of children exposed to bullying and violence in their schools as direct victims, bullies, or as bystanders. International research demonstrates that the problem of violence at school is a worldwide health concern (Eslea & Mukhtar, 2000; Smith, 2003; Smith, Morita, Junger-Tas, Olweus, et al., 1999). Virtually all children from kindergarten through high school are affected by bullying in some form each day at school as bystander, recipient, or perpetrator. Often, the bullying is “just” verbal or emotionally loaded exchanges. Frequently, it is meant as a psychological blow. Fried and Fried (1996) found that in a typical week, children receive over 200 insults from their peers at school. Recent comprehensive national studies place the rate of bullying at anywhere from 30-85% of all middle and high school students. In 2001, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that 30% of U.S. students in the sixth through tenth grades were involved in moderate or frequent bullying activities, as perpetrator, victim, or both (Nansel et al., 2001). Another study found that 77% of junior high and high school students in small Midwest towns have been bullied at school (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). When bullying and violence take on the form of sexual harassment, the numbers of students involved can be staggering (AAUW, 2001).

Who Tends to Get Bullied

The majority of students in U.S. schools are subjected to various forms of bullying. However, children who are different by virtue of appearance, disability, socioeconomic status, or other distinguishing characteristics are very likely subjects for bullying. Children with physical, emotional, or learning disabilities are among the most frequent targets (Eamon, 2001; Mishna, 2003). Students say those who look, act, or dress differently; are on the autism spectrum; or have mental health, alcohol, or other drug problems are the most likely to be excluded and abused at school (deLara, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Ironically, more children than ever before with health and mental health problems are in the “mainstream” classroom. This change is due to shifts in educational philosophy, availability and prescribing of medications, and current public policy. In the United States, 21% of our children have a diagnosed mental disorder or addiction, 8% of secondary students suffer from clinical depression, and 20 to 25% of secondary students have seriously considered suicide (Commission on Children at Risk et al., 2003). Children and adolescents, with their limited maturity, are often not well equipped to interact appropriately with peers who display special needs. Most students respond and react to peers with special needs in benign or even helpful ways; however, this is not always the case. Education is compromised for children who are targets of bullying; sometimes, dropping out is a direct result (DeLuca & Rosenbaum, 2000; Rumberger, 2001). This complicates an already uncertain future, particularly for young people with disabilities (Balfanz & Letgers, 2001; Heubert, 1999).

Children do not really allow much room for their peers to be different or to express differences. When the shootings occurred at Columbine High School in April 1999, one young man, a Columbine athlete, summed up the opinions of some of his classmates toward the perpetrators:

Columbine is a clean, good place except for those rejects [Klebold, Harris, and friends]. Most kids didn’t want them here. They were into witchcraft. They were into voodoo dolls. Sure, we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just the jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos, grabbing each other’s private parts. (Gibbs & Roche, 1999, pp. 50-51)

Who Does the Bullying

Problematic peers

Research indicates a large portion of young people are involved in bullying others in the form of verbal abuse or sexual harassment (AAUW, 2001). While many students do not categorize their peers, others say trouble at school or on the bus is ignited by the “Goths,” “kids who are different,” “hicks and scrubs,” “druggies,” “athletes,” or the “bullies” (deLara, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Regarding drug use, students are concerned that school personnel and parents do not have adequate knowledge about drug use by other students. This lack of awareness of the extent of the problem makes students feel unsafe at school and taints their ability to trust adults (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Gaughan et al, 2001).

Teachers and Other Adults as Bullies

Teachers and other school personnel are among those who bully or harass children (AAUW, 2001; DeLuca & Rosenbaum, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). They make children feel insecure by virtue of some of their observable behaviors or due to a reputation for inappropriate student-teacher interactions (Human Rights Watch, 2001; Hyman & Snook, 1999; Kyle, 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). The consequences of adult-to-child bullying or harassment can be devastating and include decreased interest in school, alienation from school, impact on academic achievement, and decisions to drop out (DeLuca & Rosenbaum, 2000; Orpinas, Home, & Staniszewski, 2003).

The Role of Race and Ethnicity

Students’ cultural differences are expressed in styles of dress, behavior, eye contact, and verbal expression. Even when students and adults make good-faith attempts to figure out the meaning of such differences, the efforts can be anxiety producing. When students and school personnel fail to understand the meaning of cultural differences, needless conflict can be the result. Some teachers and other school personnel engage in disparaging remarks to students (DeLuca & Rosenbaum, 2000), perhaps to control or change behavior they find uncomfortable or unacceptable.

For example, teachers typically perceive Mexican American elementary students and Asian American students as cooperative and quiet, while they often see African American students as loud and aggressive (Cartledge & Johnson, 2004). Sociological studies reveal that African American students tend to be direct, confrontational, and highly energized in their arguing style, as well as in their playing style. Teachers and other adults can misinterpret this stylistic difference, leading to inappropriate responses or unnecessary discipline. To further complicate matters, minority students engage in derision within their own cultural groups toward peers who are academically inclined. Friends or peers who achieve academically or who dress like students from the mainstream culture are harassed and bullied for “acting White” (Cartledge & Johnson, 2004).

Why Does it Happen

From an individual perspective, kids say picking on others can sometimes make you feel good because it gives you a sense of power. For a moment, “you’re better than someone else.” And sometimes you can impress your friends if you do it. But they express a sense of sadness that some kids get picked on every day, even though they are “so annoying” they “bring it on themselves” (deLara & Garbarino, 2003).

Bullying can become institutionalized and it is a form of institutional violence when this happens. In one example, a high school changed its policies to zero tolerance for bullying. When the new policies were implemented, school athletes were angry. They felt that the social hierarchy of the school culture had been disturbed. As seniors, they made comments like “Now it’s our turn” and “Now [the freshmen] get away with whatever they want” (Leland, 2001, p. 6).

It may look like the purpose of bullying is to be mean, for retaliation, or for power over others. And while this may be a part of the truth, these are first-order purposes of bullying. The underlying purpose or function of bullying is as a form of social control and an attempt to force conformity with group norms (Pelligrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999). Another underlying function of bullying is to force conformity with certain very predictable societal norms. Bullying and harassment are means of enculturation and socialization particularly aimed at those outside of the norm—in dress, speech, general attitude, or behavior. School “superstars” are less likely to be reprimanded or censured for such behavior not only because they are prized by the school, but also because they are carrying out the work of adults and society. When older children do the work of adults in families, they are referred to as Parentified Children (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Sparks, 1973). In schools, those who bully with impunity may be the Parentified Children in the system. In effect, when teens bully others like Goths or GLBTQ, many adults agree with the overall goal of the bullying—enforcing conformity to social norms of behavior, dress, or attitude. This is a possible explanation for why they do not intervene to stop it (Duttweiler, 1997; Human Rights Watch, 2001). The school as an organization values conformity and considers it essential to its homeostasis (Rowan & Miskel, 1999) and mission (Sarason, 2001). The Parentified Children of the system will push, pull, and manipulate other children to coerce them into “proper” standards of dress, behavior, and attitude.

Conformity is an essential component of safety and security. Sameness promotes a sense of security. Uniformity is valued by adolescents (Lashbrook, 2000) and by society as a whole (Knafo, 2003), never more so than now. Consequently, the ability to predict the behavior of peers is valued. One way to facilitate “peer predictability” (deLara, 2002) is to bully people into specified modes of personal expression, personal behavior, and interpersonal interactions. Limiting the range of anyone’s behavior enhances predictability, thereby enhancing a sense of safety for everyone. Meanness (physical, verbal, emotional, and psychological) does serve the purpose of establishing power over others, but power over another in and of itself is not the ultimate end. The end goal of most forms of bullying is in service to the “greater good” of conformity— leading to predictability and therefore a sense of safety (deLara, 2002).

Bullies are essentially fear-based people who respond aggressively when they no longer have control over a particular situation or relationship (Ehrensaft, Cohen, Brown, Smailes, Chen et al., 2003; McGuigan, Vuchinich, & Pratt, 2000). Fear is the underlying trigger for the response of violence. Similarly, school bullying at the secondary school level is fueled by fear as well—fear of the behavior of others who act different or have different values. The fear need not be for physical safety but may be experienced as a threat to the continuation of a particular group, lifestyle, or way of doing things. Bullying is an effective means of keeping things the same and acts as a homeostatic balancing mechanism.

Unfortunately, parents can be the first bullies in a child’s life, inflicting abuse in a variety of forms from psychological to physical (Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2001; Straus & Field, 2003; Vorrasi, deLara, & Bradshaw, 2005). The research of Straus and Field (2003) indicates that fully 96% of all American children are subject to some form of verbal abuse by their parents. This may be part of the reason that children are unable to figure out how to deal with schoolyard bullying. At some level, they are used to it—but they are not encouraged to stand up to the parental bully.

Where and When Does Bullying Occur

Students report that they feel unsafe at various times during the school day due to these general factors:

  1. Bullying or harassing behaviors by some of their peers;
  2. Unpredictable behavior of some specific groups of their peers;
  3. Lack of adult awareness of the extent of verbal, sexual, and physical bullying;
  4. Lack of adult awareness of alcohol or drug involvement of peers at school;
  5. Lack of adult supervision and intervention.

(AAUW, 2001; deLara, 2002; deLara & Garbarino, 2003; Glover, Gough, Johnson, & Cartwright, 2000).

Unsupervised spaces

Unsupervised or undersupervised spaces are unsettling for most students. They cite the hallways, locker rooms, restrooms, and school buses as problematic in terms of their potential for bullying and harassment (Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999; Doll, Murphy, & Song, 2003; Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Because restrooms are totally unsupervised areas, many avoid the restrooms all day. Others try to predict what their peers may do (deLara, 2002) while in the restrooms and locker rooms to enhance their sense of security. While a small high school allows for fewer unsafe or unowned spaces, it is not a guarantee to students that they will be safe from bullying or harassment (Astor et al., 1999; Garbarino & deLara, 2002). A small school theoretically allows for greater adult awareness, supervision, intervention, and caring than a student can expect at a large school. Researchers in this country as well as in Scandinavian countries are advocating for the creation of small schools to provide a better school climate and to reduce bullying in the school environment (Ancess, 2003; Coleman, 2002; Kelker, 1998; Smith, 2003).

The school bus

There are a variety of problems associated with the daily school bus ride for children in Grades K through 12. The bus is a highly unsupervised part of the school day. Most districts cannot afford to provide an aide, so the driver is faced with the almost impossible expectation of driving safely and keeping order. Glover et al. (2000) notes that the school bus is a problem for children because “who you are and where you live is obvious to those who want to make your life difficult” (p. 147). Surveys indicate that the school bus is the most problematic part of the day for students (Richardson, 2002). It is an unpleasant and upsetting way to start and end the school day. Students are subject to harassment by their peers or to witnessing acts of varying degrees of bullying (Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Impact of Bullying

No child should be subjected to disrespectful treatment or a hostile school environment. In addition, there are many consequences of bullying for perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. We know that chronic victims experience more physical and psychological problems than other children (Coleman, 2002; Limber & Nation, 2004; Olweus, 1993b). Research has found that children who are victims of bullying may be at increased risk for depression, poor self-esteem, and other mental health problems as adults (Olweus, 1993b). Bullies, also, are at risk for poor short-term as well as long-term outcomes (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). Skipping school, dropping out of school, and vandalism are all great possibilities for this group of students (Olweus, 1993b). Several studies have documented that aggressive 8-year-olds are very likely to continue to be aggressive throughout school and to participate in criminal activity as young adults (Eron, Huesmann, Dubow, Romanoff, & Yarmel, 1987; Kellam, Xiange, Merisca, Brown, & lalongo, 1998). Bystanders suffer in several ways. They experience considerable discomfort in witnessing the bullying, harassment, and victimization of their family, friends, or peers (Atlas & Pepler, 1998; Molnar, Buka, Brennan, Holton, & Earls, 2003). Bystanders often feel fearful at school and ashamed for not intervening (Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Too many American students are afraid to go to school or fearful while they are there. Every day, 160,000 children skip school over fears for their safety (Jordan, McPartland, & Lara, 1999). The Centers for Disease Control (2003) surveyed more than 10,000 students in 2003 and found that more than one 1 of 20 high school students skip school due to safety concerns.

Bullying and Suicide

Researchers and mental health practitioners contend that the impact of chronic bullying can be crushing and can have both immediate and life-long consequences (Ambert, 1994; Crothers & Kolbert, 2004; deLara, 2002; Fried & Fried, 1996; Hazier, Miller, & Green, 2001; Orpinas et al., 2003; Schuster, 1996). Perhaps as a result, a significant proportion of our young people are living with thoughts of suicide and despair. According to the 1998 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Kadel, 1998), fully 50% of all high school students have “seriously considered” suicide before they graduate. Much of the despair they feel is not so-called “normal adolescent unhappiness.” It is the result of the unrelenting, day-after-day emotional violence they experience in their schools (Garbarino & deLara, 2002). An important precedent to suicidal thinking and action frequently is depression. In a recent survey, 29% of all students in Grades 9 through 12 reported feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness almost every day for an extended period in the last year (Child Trends Data, 2003).

In systemic terms, when kids are suicidal it is a symptom. It is a symptom not only that they are in pain, but also that the system is malfunctioning. It is safe to conclude that this is another way that bullying is taking an unacceptable toll in the lives of children, their families, and their communities.

Student Strategies to Try to Stay Safe

Individual and social protective factors such as temperament, cognitive-behavioral strategies, relationships with teachers, peer group supports, and connection with school and family heavily influence a child’s ability to cope with bullying at school (Bowman, 2002; deLara, 2002; Lantien & Patti, 1996; Naylor & Cowie, 1999; Smith, Hill, Evans, & Bandera, 2000). Students rely on their close friendships to protect them. Research indicates that the place of peer group support is essential as a buffer against bullying (Eamon, 2001; Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro, & Bukowski, 1999; Naylor & Cowie, 1999).

Students have specific strategies they use to get through the day. Some strategies are healthy ones such as joining a group with what they call a “worthy goal,” e.g., a band, the track team, the student newspaper (Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Some strategies are less healthy. Children adopt a variety of ways to avoid the perpetrators of their victimization and to elude the sad and angry feelings that are generated in this environment. They may skip school, feel too “sick” to go to school, skip specific classes, drop out of school, use alcohol and other drugs, and in some instances resort to suicide as a means to escape the humiliation and intimidation they experience at school (DeLuca & Rosenbaum, 2000; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Hazier et al, 2001; McPartland & Jordan, 2002).


Sadly, gangs provide protection at school and in the community, a sense of family, and a place of acceptance—elements that are missing for many young people in America (Goldstein & Kodluboy, 1998; Kodluboy, 2004). Gangs are not exclusive to urban area schools, although they are a common feature of most large urban schools (Juarez, 1996; Kodluboy, 2004). Research indicates that gangs and gang behavior are seen in suburban and rural areas as well (Barrow, VanZommeren, Young, & Holtman, 2001; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Goldstein & Kodluboy, 1998; Kodluboy, 2004). It is important to point out that gangs are not the sole province of minority students as is often portrayed in the media. Rural and suburban areas also support gangs, many of them composed strictly of Caucasian students (Kodluboy, 2004). Though gangs can be found in many areas of the United States, schools administrators tend to deny the presence of gangs in their schools (Kodluboy, 2004). Adolescents, however, confirm the existence and impact of gangs, even in schools considered “safe” by the community (deLara, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Peer Predictability

Another mechanism or strategy that adolescents develop to enhance their sense of safety is “peer predictability” (deLara, 2002). Effective peer predictability seems to have three basic components: small school size; familiarity or recognition of others by sight; and familiarity of behavioral range, patterns, and reactions. Many adolescents try to anticipate where on the campus bullying may occur and who may be a threat to them. Adolescents attempt to “size up” each other as potentially harmful or helpful (deLara, 2002).

Possible Solutions

The solutions to the problems of bullying, harassment, and other forms of school violence can be found in implementing holistic, preventive programs; forming policies that incorporate input from students; and creating caring school climates.

Student Solutions for Safe Schools

Adult awareness

Students have very important contributions to make in solving the problems of bullying and other forms of violence. They want to increase everyone’s awareness of the problems in schools. Currently, they believe that adults are clueless about the realities of school life. Students suggest that schools should be small so everyone can get to know each other—teachers, students, and administrators (Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Many years of research on school size support the idea that keeping schools small (800 students or less) enhances academic achievement and decreases a student’s sense of alienation (Barker & Gump, 1964; Garbarino, 1980; Martin, 2000; Raywid, 1998).

Adult supervision

Students want more adult supervision on school property and on buses. They are requesting more intervention and prevention efforts (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; deLara & Garbarino, 2003). Without adult supervision, they presume school personnel and parents do not really care about them as people. They conclude that adults are only interested in them as academic performers (deLara & Garbarino, 2003). Glover and colleagues (2000) found that fully 45% of the students they interviewed in 25 schools said their experience at school was not happy due to lack of adult supervision.

A worthy goal

Children say that if all students had the opportunity to pursue “a worthy goal” such as being part of a team or participating in a year-long service project, they would feel valued by their school. Studies indicate that adolescents in the United States believe one of the reasons the tragedy at Columbine High School occurred was because the perpetrators did not have anything worthy to work toward (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Gaughan et al., 2001). Educational research has long supported the idea that students who are actively engaged in school activities are more likely to feel valued by their schools and thus are more likely to feel a positive attachment to the school (Calabrese & Schumer, 1986; Garbarino, 1980).

Character education

Character education or “respect” classes are cited repeatedly by students as helpful because they believe some of their peers “need a second kind of parent” in school to help with good decision making (Garbarino & deLara, 2002). In an attempt to stem violence in schools, character education has been mandated in some areas of the country. In 2000, the New York State Legislature amended the education law to require instruction in civility, citizenship, and character education on the “principles of honesty, tolerance, personal responsibility, respect for others” through Project SAVE.

Student Involvement in Safety Planning

Adolescents believe that all students should be included in ongoing discussions of solutions to the problems in school culture. By this they mean that students from every level of achievement have something to offer and that without their inclusion, an important piece of the puzzle is missing. It is clear that students from the high-achieving groups have a very different school experience than the lower-achieving students in the same school. The middle-of-the-road achievers have yet another experience of the school and its climate. Thus it is important to heed the words of the students that to know what is going on, we need to ask students—all of them (deLara, 2000, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Change school design

Students would like to see improvements in school design. They notice that hallways are not wide enough for the volume of students in the buildings. This facilitates physical bullying and sexual harassment (Astor et al., 1999). Overly close quarters and other undesirable design conditions make it more difficult for teachers to supervise and for students to escape trouble started by someone else in close proximity (deLara & Garbarino, 2003). Narrow, dark, unsupervised hallways should be eliminated in new school construction and better supervised in current older buildings. When classes change, all age groups are colliding in the halls at the same time. Adolescents believe it is not smart to put younger students in the hallways at the same time as the older ones. Further, they are mystified that adults cannot see this simple fact and figure out how to remedy it. According to students, changing this model would cut down on violence at school (Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Legal Decisions and Bullying

There have been groundbreaking legal decisions that hold schools accountable for bullying and harassment. Not only are families initiating legal action, they are winning decisions with considerable awards (Fineran, 2002; Garbarino & deLara, 2002; Guynn & Aquila, 2004). One avenue for the legal pursuit of schools is under Title IX, which provides federal funding to schools (Federal Title IX, 1972). Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any educational facility receiving federal money. In Davis v. Monroe Board of Education, 1999 (Grube & Lens, 2003), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school could face a sex-discrimination suit for failing to intervene when one student complains of sexual harassment by another. In another case, Jamie Nabozny’s school district paid him over $900,000 after the court decided that his constitutional rights had been violated when school officials failed to stop other students in his junior and senior high school from bullying, taunting, and tormenting him once he acknowledged that he was gay (Logue, 1997).

Policy, Practice, and Programs

Education policy makers have to reevalu-ate the current focus of teaching for testing and return to educating the whole child. If this goal is to be accomplished, policy makers have to understand the place of school safety in children’s ability to concentrate and learn. There is a connection between children who feel unsafe at school and children who are “troublemakers” at school, children who are underachievers and children who drop out of school.


The installation of high-tech equipment is utilized in school districts to provide some semblance of safety. In urban areas, children are accustomed to buildings equipped with metal detectors and other forms of technology meant to curtail violent incidents. Urban students often perceive their schools as a refuge from violent neighborhoods. As such they are tolerant toward technology used to keep their schools weapon free (American Civil Liberties Union, 2001). These same means are largely missing from most suburban and rural schools. Students in urban and rural areas perceive technological interventions differently. The majority say they do not want to attend a school where surveillance equipment is deemed necessary and believe other means for addressing safety concerns should be implemented (Garbarino & deLara, 2002). School districts should resist the wholesale deployment of technological quick fixes and instead do comprehensive surveying and problem solving with students as their partners.

Programs of promise

There are programs that show promise for decreasing school violence. In general, these are approaches that take a holistic or systemic perspective (Astor, Benbenishty, & Marachi, 2004). One such program is Peace Power for Adolescents (Mattaini, 2001). This program is based on the concept that there are two types of power: coercive and adversarial, or constructive. Basis concepts of this model include four essential steps: (1) increase positive feedback to students from adults and their peers; (2) act with respect; (3) share power to build community; and (4) encourage a holistic understanding of how to resolve conflict.

First-order vs. second-order change

Anti-bullying programs, anger management curricula, and dispute resolution mediation are all useful components of an effective safe school plan. However, used alone, they provide only first-order change. If incorporated into a holistic design, they are useful aspects for true second-order change. To expect any program to stand on its own, without a true systemic approach, is naïve and potentially dangerous. Currently, most schools implement some form of anti-bullying program without looking at evaluation studies or investigating the fit of the program for their particular school, grade levels, or mix of students and school personnel (Garbarino & deLara, 2004; Hazier, 1998; Orpinas etal, 2003). Further, most anti-bullying programs and curricula rest squarely on the shoulders of children to implement and require children to be responsible for providing the motivation for a respectful environment. This type of model is not developmentally appropriate.

Research recognizes the place of the bystander in the phenomenon of bullying. However, students say that attempting to interrupt bullying, in either a physical or psychological encounter, places them as the next target (Garbarino & deLara, 2002; O’Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999). When most adults are unable to interrupt sexist or racist interactions in their own workplaces, how can we expect more from children?

It is inappropriate to place the preponderance of responsibility for a safe school climate on programs that target intervention by bystander children. All models that demonstrate true second-order change involve adults as well as children in the program’s realization and do not expect changes in school climate to come exclusively from the behavioral change of children.

In keeping with a systemic view of school violence and intervention, the U.S. Surgeon General’s report (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001) addressing youth violence found that non-systemic or non-holistic approaches are ineffective. Successful programs use school-wide interventions.


It is inaccurate to view the violence in today’s schools as merely a statement of misunderstandings between one racial or ethnic group and another or one socioeconomic group and another. It is critical to consider the problems from a systemic perspective and to analyze the role of each member of the system, adults as well as children. Further, schools are a microcosm of society. On the national political front, we give a mixed message to our children about working together with others to try for a peaceful existence or for effective problem resolution. How do these ideas and behaviors compete with our local anti-bullying program messages? Children mimic what they see. Their greatest influences are not their peers, but the adults around them. All humans imitate those with power. Our children are witness through the media to an ethic, on a national scale, that says, “The strong survive” and “Might makes right.” How can we be surprised if some of our children act this out?

The responsibility for the education of a community’s children resides with everyone. All benefit or suffer from the local school district’s successes or failures. Community stakeholders, including parents, teachers, bus drivers, business leaders, students, as well as school district administrators, should be engaged. However, in all communities, students must be included. Without the input of students from all levels of academic achievement, adults will be unsuccessful in program, practice, and policy development.

There are those who still cling to the belief that bullying will always exist at school and not much can be done about it. In the meantime, model schools across the nation dispel this myth. Children, themselves, are telling us that bullying and harassment are unacceptable to them. At the same time, they can affect only one part of the solution. It is the responsibility of adults to ensure a safe school environment and it is only in this climate that children can learn and teachers can teach. We must recognize this fact and move to provide school personnel with the resources to conduct the business of educating the whole child. School is our children’s workplace, as well as their primary social environment. In endorsing this fact, we will accord children the protections under the law they deserve to grow and become the future well-prepared, contributing citizens our country needs.