Researchers Examine Bystander Role In Bullying
You hear about the extreme cases on the news: A child is taunted by classmates who make fun of the way he looks, the way he talks or his sexual orientation. The child may leave warning signs that are often unnoticed or wrongly interpreted by adults. The verbal and sometimes physical torture becomes too much and the child takes his own life.
Isolated cases like this are often the first to come to mind when we think of bullying, but bullying is not a rare, once-in-a while problem; it’s a widespread epidemic affecting millions of people across the U.S. and the world.
In fact, extensive research shows that up to 89 percent of students in U.S. schools are involved in some way in bullying.
“If you only look at bullies and victims, you are going to see statistics suggesting that 13 percent of students have been identified as bullies and 28 percent are victimized, but, in my opinion, we have to look holistically at the problem and see that bullying encompasses the entire student body,” said Chad Rose, assistant professor of special education at SHSU.
Rose and other researchers have identified bystanders as a major factor in a growing problem.
“Bullying is maintained by social motivators, so students who are standing around and watching it occur are actually reinforcing the bullying behavior, so these bystanders are involved,” Rose said.
Rose is passionate about his research in bullying, but it was not something he set out to do as he planned his career path. He was a special education teacher for five years in the fourth most diverse secondary school in the nation. While at Southside High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., he worked primarily with students with challenging and aggressive behaviors.
“My students would engage in these types of behaviors, which often prevented them from receiving services alongside their peers without disabilities,” said Rose.
Rose decided to go back to school and get his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and focus on managing violent and aggressive behaviors in the classroom. He soon began working with his adviser, Lisa Monda-Amaya, to create stand-alone modules for teachers and professors to take into their classrooms to teach specific types of behavioral interventions.
It was during this time that Rose met his mentor, Dorothy Espelage, who had just completed a research study of approximately 14,000 students, including students with disabilities, on bully perpetration and victimization. He soon joined her in the research and fell in love with it.
“It made me realize that bullying really is a pre-cursor to some of these violent behaviors we’re seeing in the classroom,” Rose said. “We know as a direct result of Columbine, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education started the ‘Safe School’ initiative and found that 71 percent of our school shooters from 1974 until 2000 had been victimized. That prompted a 200 percent increase in bullying research in our nation.”
Rose dove deep into the research as Espelage’s research assistant on a four year, mulit-million dollar grant, funded by the Center for Disease Control, which focused on the intersection between sexual violence and harassment and bullying and victimization.
During that four-year study they were also able to pull out students with disabilities and begin to look at unique, predictive factors associated with that population of students.
“Previously only six studies had been published in the U.S. looking at bullying among students with disabilities,” Rose said. “We found in our research that this population was overrepresented as victims and as perpetrators. We now know that the characteristics associated with specific disabilities, not the simple identification of a disability, may serve as risk factors for this population of students.”
Rose has traveled the U.S. doing talks on bullying, specifically disability characteristics and other risk factors for involvement such as gender, culture, economic status and race.
Now Rose’s knowledge about bullying has led him to a new project, one that is aimed at helping Texas schools get into compliance with new legislation set to go into effect sometime during the 2012-2013 school year.
The new legislation states that Texas schools must have in place protocols for those involved in bullying. Previous legislation looked only at victims and what to do to keep them safe after they have been identified; the new law gives schools a directive to write into school policy how it will address perpetrators as well. It also states that schools must adhere to federal and state policies regarding students with disabilities and disciplinary actions.
“Our students with disabilities are twice as likely to be victimized, they are twice as likely to be identified as bullies, and now we have legislation that will allow us to have at least a vehicle to address that in legal documentation,” Rose said.
Rose, Cindy Simpson of Houston Baptist University, seven research assistants and 35 SHSU undergraduate students have collected data from 23 Texas high school and junior high schools.They have given 23,000 students questionnaires regarding bullying at their schools.
While the findings are still preliminary, early data shows females are more likely to experience cyber-bullying than males, but when it comes to social bullying on school campuses, boys and girls are equally as likely to be victimized.
“Once all of the data are collected and analyzed, we will meet with school administrators and present our findings to help them decide how to write an anti-bullying policy that meets the state’s requirements,” Rose said. “If these administrators want us to come in and talk with their teachers, students or parents about prevention, we will schedule school, district or community meetings.”
The anti-bully legislation is not something school districts can take lightly. In April 2012, Houston school district bus drivers rallied outside HISD headquarters to ask administrators for help, stating they were being victimized by students and could not control the unruly behavior.
Over the summer, HISD reported its entire fleet of 989 school buses is equipped with cameras. In August, 400 of the buses were equipped with seven cameras each, the remaining buses are reported to have at least three cameras on board.
The system allows HISD to record both digital video and audio during the entire bus ride. Rose believes the added cameras are a good idea, but only if used correctly.
“I believe increasing monitoring in high-risk areas is essential to reducing bullying. However, the inclusion of cameras will not be the vehicle for reducing bullying on buses; it will be how the district uses the footage,” he said. “Hopefully, HISD will use the positive footage to reinforce socially appropriate behaviors, instead of only taking punitive measures.”
Rose is hoping the new legislation will prompt Texas schools to put focus on the largest population involved in bullying—the bystanders.
“We have to empower the majority to influence the minority. I don’t believe our students want to stand around and watch bullying, let alone reinforce it, but I don’t think they are equipped with prevention strategies,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as educators to tell these students what to do and what to say and let them know how we will handle the situation.”
The new state law has already been approved, but the state continues to push back the start date, giving school districts more time to prepare for it.
For now, Rose, along with his colleagues and research assistants, will continue their efforts in educating Texas schools on bullying and prevention, hoping the next research project will show Texas is on the right track to reducing bullying and is setting precedence for other states across the nation.
This fall, Rose and his research assistants are creating a service-learning student organization tentatively called the Foundation for Social and Emotional Learning and Development (SELD), through which he and SHSU students will work on a variety of issues related to young children, including bullying. Students interested in participating in the organization can contact Rose by email.
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