Bullying Prevention: Creating Welcoming and Supportive School Environments

Bullying as a phenomenon has remained a serious problem. “25-35% of students, particularly in middle school, but also upper-elementary, middle, and high schools, are involved in some sort of bullying experience either as a victim, or a bully, or as a bully and a victim at different times,” says GSE Associate Professor Matthew Mayer. A large population of these students are those who identify as LGBTQ. “We know that LGBTQ populations experience various forms of harassment, intimidation, or bullying at very high levels in many ways,” states Mayer. Adding to this narrative is the recent work of GSE Associate Professor Melinda Mangin, who specializes in research surrounding transgender and gender nonconforming students. “Bullying amongst these children is incredibly prevalent. The data show that 54% of those who are out or are perceived as transgender in K-12 environments were verbally harassed, a quarter were physically attacked, and 13% were sexually assaulted. So, when you look at this population, its astronomical. Presumably there is overlap between these groups, but if there weren’t overlap, and you added 54 and 24 and 13, you’ve got almost 100%. That’s a really high percentage.”

When it comes to these groups, there are some policies in place to protect them, but there are stipulations to those policies and initiatives. “So Title IX, which we think of as generally protecting girls also protects anyone who identifies as transgender or gender nonconforming. The Obama administration had put out some guidelines for interpreting Title IX and helping schools make sense of it and helping them understand that this population is also protected under Title IX. Then the new administration rescinded those guidelines. They didn’t rescind Title IX, so, Title IX still stands, but the administration is interpreting it in a more conservative way and not protecting people of all genders,” Mangin explains.

Mayer expands, “New Jersey came along a few years ago with new anti-bullying laws which were considered the strongest in the nation, and there was a big push in schools. But one of the problems was that some schools felt overwhelmed with having to deal with bullying complaints. You would hear that administrators and teachers were told within their school that if something happens and you have to write it up, don’t call it bullying. Call it anything else because when you call it bullying, it triggers a series of administrative responsibilities that are time-consuming. There is something called the EVVRS, the Electronic Violence and Vandalism Reporting System in New Jersey that all schools are tied into. And it is supposed to be a database where you can see everything going on, but it does not reflect reality. But that also reflects a larger issue that often schools that have problems get punished being labeled as having inept management or oversight. And principals and others who manage schools are worried about their image, about the consequences if they truthfully report the problems they are having. So, you get uneven reporting— some are very truthful and some are anything but truthful in terms of how data is reported.”

In Mangin’s research, she looks at building supportive environments for gender nonconforming and transgender students and found an interesting phenomenon. “I went to 20 schools across 6 states to interview a range of educators and one of the things that really stood out to me was that in all 20 schools, the children that the principals were supporting tended to be binary in nature. And what I mean by that is that is if they were transgender, they pretty strongly conformed to social norms for their gender identify. So, teachers or principals would say ‘Oh if you saw James, you’d just think he’s a boy and he is a boy and he has friends who are boys and he goes to the boy’s bathroom and he sleeps over at boys’ houses and he plays soccer.’ And they would say all those ways in which this fictional James conforms to traditional norms for male behavior helped them be supportive. It was much more likely that if a nonconforming student said ‘I’m a boy but I like to wear nail polish’ or ‘I’m a boy but I like to wear skirts’ or ‘I’m a girl with a shaved head’ that those children were less likely to get support.”

Mayer’s research is currently looking at trends in school violence and school climate in the role of violence. “School climate is a central issue. One of the things is you need to understand what is going on in your own school if you are going to figure out what you want to work on. New Jersey developed a school climate survey, so the survey was a great step. What it doesn’t do is collect direct victimization data. In other words, they still don’t get direct data on how many kids say they were actually bullied personally or physically attacked personally. They get indirect answers about the level of violence and bullying that the kids perceive going on around them. And this has to do with a state law where you can’t ask kids survey questions in certain a school without parental signed permission if the questions have to do with a list of things where the kids could be traumatized. You can’t ask them questions about sensitive issues, sexual practices, drug use, or other psychologically intrusive procedures. So, what we don’t get is critical victimization data of what is actually happening.”

So, what can be done at the school level? Mangin suggests reducing the amount of attention to the gender binary. “Making practices more gender neutral. So instead of, ‘boys line up, girls line up’ you could say, ‘kids with blue jeans line up, kids with red t-shirts line up’. Which, you know girls or boys could be wearing blue jeans or have on red t-shirts. So, making language less gendered, making practices in the classroom less gendered.” Mayer adds, “We need to create environments where everyone in the school has the same goal. We have a lot of people out there who still think in old-fashioned ways that bullying is just part of growing up, a “boys will be boys” mentality. And even though it is happening with girls too, there is that saying, “boys will be boys”. When you evaluate the long-term harm effects, you have to come back to putting more preventive or supportive things in place to help kids cope and deal with this while the adults are trying to reduce it.” “It’s very much about creating a welcoming atmosphere in schools where students and adults are mutually respectful, caring, and supportive.”

When preparing educators, Mangin teaches her students first understand the difference between sex, gender, and sexuality, since they are not the same thing and they may not always align. She also has the students really examine their teaching practices and evaluate how to not only build more inclusive classrooms, but also having conversations with all the students to help create that environment. “Teachers, in their own mind when they call on children, they call on a boy and then a girl because in their mind they are moving toward equity, but has an unintended consequence of isolating those who do not fit into this binary.”

Mayer states, “We have a lot of coverage on bullying, harassment, intimidation and working on preventing that in different ways, which is part of our responsibilities in the courses here at the GSE.  There are also issues pertaining to more serious acts of violence in schools where individuals with a history of difficulties often slip between the cracks, not getting help they may very much need.  Ultimately, we need a system where the key players— schools, law enforcement, and mental health professionals— can work together to assess these situations and make schools safer for all kids.”