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Bullying: The invisible canary

October is Bullying Prevention Month. What does bullying reveal about climate and culture?

7 min read


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Recently it was reported that 71% of schools in New York City recorded zero incidents of bullying for a school year.  I am sure similar statistics could be found in many other districts in our country. Recent national statistics on bullying, however, indicated that approximately 20% to 25 % of secondary-school students indicated that they were bullied 2 to 3 times per month. This means that a school hypothetically of 100 students should have approximately 400 incidents of bullying per year. How can such contradictorily sets of data be possible?

Bully is happening in schools, but staff don’t see or know about it, but students do. Even if they are not targets of bullying, students live with its effects. This is why the analogy of bullying being like the invisible canary in a coal mine is apt for the dilemma facing schools. Bullying, like a canary, should be a signal to staff that something is wrong with the school’s climate and culture. Unfortunately, if the signal goes unseen, the problem will continue and probably worsen. The “canary” could even die and business could go on as usual.

Many might think that schools are deliberately deflating the number of incidents in order to avoid criticism or sanctions. I don’t think so. The reasons for these two data sets are related to the complexity of the problem itself and how bullying functions in a school environment.

There are some legitimate reasons for why competent and caring staff think that bullying isn’t a real problem, when it is:

  • Students have learned how to bully others under the radar of adult supervision.Acts of bullying can hide in plain sight through brief gestures or quick looks exchanged at the right time.
  • Many students who are bullied refrain for reporting it. They are embarrassed to admit it thereby publically announcing their low social status. Many students think reporting will do little good or make things worse for them.
  • Students who witness bullying are reluctant to report it. Some might think the students who are bullied deserve it. Some want to avoid being associated with lower status students. Some just don’t want to get involved or be accused of snitching.
  • Parent complaints are too easily dismissed as not being accurate or are interpreted as overreactions and criticisms of the school.
  • Most schools do not regularly survey students anonymously. Even if they do, many staff could question results that don’t match their perceptions.

Since there are many reasons why the flow of “data” from these sources is impeded, staff in school could easily conclude that the problem of “bullying” is in other schools not theirs. It is hard to blame staff given all the other problems and issues they must contend with. Why should they go looking for problems when everything looks okay from their perspective?

Bullying, however, is not an isolated problem that emerges from students of questionable character; it is a byproduct and a symptom of the climate and culture of the school. To extend the bullying as canary analogy: attempts to solve the problem of bullying without exploring it causes is like focusing on the canary rather than dealing with the compromised air that causes it to pass out. 

Many bullying prevention programs do recognize this fact and tell schools to improve their climate, which is, to put it mildly, easier said than done. Changing school climate is a conundrum: it’s asking the people who created the problem to solve it on their own. In addition, changing the culture and climate of any organization is extremely difficult for two significant reasons: those in a culture/climate can’t really see it and mandates to change it are taken as criticism.

In most organizations, those in leadership positions have the greatest impact on culture and climate, so when they improve how they treat those with less power, the climate changes for the better. In schools, however, most bullying prevention efforts minimize changing staff behavior and instead focus on changing student behavior.

This is why I firmly believe that the problem of bullying will remain entrenched as long as it is treated as a separate and distinct problem that needs “solving.” Bullying can only be successfully addressed when staff have the courage to examine how they treat students. All students cannot be expected to be respectful of their peers if they observe any staff person treating any student in a disrespectful way. Actions do speak louder than words; students usually resent having different standards of behavior for them and staff.

Even if the canary/bullying is invisible, here are questions schools could use to determine if something is amiss in their air/climate:

Are there exceptions to the golden rule? Very often staff can feel justified in mistreating students who consistently cause problems for them. Staff may feel that these students need to feel bad in order to learn to change. Unfortunately these exceptions to the golden rule communicate that is okay to bully others who might deserve such mistreatment.

Is there an over reliance on rewards and consequences for managing student behavior and/or motivating them to learn? Such approaches are based on assumptions that students need to be controlled in order to learn. Unfortunately students in these environment act accordingly with the identity that is projected onto them. When school becomes a game of gaining approval from those in power, the resulting social stratification breeds bullying.

Is there a top/down managerial structure? In environments where principals fail to share leadership and accept input for decisions, teachers tend to mirror that behavior in their classrooms. Students who feel that their main responsibility is to do what they are told often seek power and autonomy in other ways and too often it’s with peers.

Is there a predominant focus on academics? When many staff view social and emotional issues as superfluous or a waste of time by, students tend to refrain from sharing their problems with adults. Students who are bullied or who witness it feel that adults don’t want to be bothered by hearing about their problems.

Are parents viewed as the reason why students misbehave or don’t perform well in school? Many teachers and administrators feel that if parents met their responsibility, staff wouldn’t have to deal with behavior issues and could just teach. This demonstrates staff’s lack of awareness regarding human development and the powerful influence of peers on all student behavior.

Schools will make progress on the issue of bullying when the question, “how do we stop students from bullying?” changes to, “how do WE want to treat each other in this environment and what type of a place do WE want to be?” Schools need to be transformed from being a group of people (students, staff, parents) who happen to be in the same time and space, to being a true community: people who share common values, beliefs and principles that guide their words and deeds.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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