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A Guide for Schools and Communities

Sad Girl

Creating Safe, Fair, and Responsive Schools

Students at risk for bullying include those who "don’t fit in", such as those who are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning, those who differ from the majority of their classmates with regard to race, ethnicity, or religion, those who have differing social or physical abilities, and those who are economically disadvantaged.

Students are more likely to feel safe and connected to their schools if the school reflects their realities, if they think that they are being treated fairly, and if they believe that teachers are supportive and approachable.

Yet too many published bully-prevention programs do not address how cultural norms and stereotypes differently impact children’s sense of safety and fairness, feelings of connectedness to school, and teacher support or approachability. If bullying is largely about the imbalance and abuse of power, educators need to move beyond targeting student-to-student bullying and appreciate the ways in which gender, race, class, sexual identity, religion and ability position some children as more powerful and privileged in schools than others. Schools can feel especially unsafe and unsupportive when informal norms and/or formal rules unwittingly enhance the power or advantage of some children and youth over others. Since students take their cues from the adults in the school and learn how to treat one another through school norms and rules, such inequities can have a direct effect on the degree and nature of school-based bullying.

Schools that are safe for all students:

  • Have an explicit commitment to social justice and teach both formally and informally, about the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression that impact all students. Such a commitment is reflected in an inclusive curriculum that teaches critical thinking, and a school environment that encourages and supports the development of active and effective student groups that reflect this commitment, such as Civil Rights teams and Gay/Straight Alliances.
  • Appreciate the social context of bullying and how power differences between cultural and social groups give rise to bullying behavior. For example, what looks like bullying from a white middle class student may be a sign of self-defense or survival in a hostile or unfair climate from a white working class student or a student of color. The behavior needs to be addressed in both cases, but the response must consider these differences in social and cultural realities.
  • Offer diversity training to all school staff to increase awareness of the differing needs of students and appreciation of culturally different communication styles and social interactions.
  • Develop clear social norms and rules that respect all students and consistent consequences and interventions that challenge staff and student homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in the development of such school norms and rules and offer creative strategies for helping all students think critically and to feel safe, respected, supported, and comfortable approaching an adult with problems.
  • Educate staff about the motivations behind different forms of bullying, distinguishing relational aggression (more often used by those with less power) from physical forms of aggression, and help educators respond to indirect as well as direct forms of bullying.
  • Do not use bullying as a euphemism for sexism, racism, and homophobia and make clear distinctions between bullying and illegal sexual or gender harassment, racial harassment, criminal hazing or assault. A gender neutral re-labeling of violence and victimization in schools (bullying) can undermine the rights of students to a school environment that is gender-safe by stripping victims of powerful legal rights and remedies, particularly federal law Title IX.
  • Educate staff about the role gender plays in bullying or harassing behavior and how gendered behavior varies with social and cultural context. For example, the ways boys across all social classes feel pressure to conform to a conventional form of masculinity that includes a need to define oneself as "not gay" or the ways middle class girls feel pressed to hide their anger and aggression to conform to conventionally feminine notions of nice girls, whereas working class girls are more likely to express their anger openly and directly.
  • Offer media literacy to staff and to students at every grade level.  Children learn physical violence and relational aggression, as well as every form of "ism", from media they watch and interact with. Just as they develop critical skills for interpreting the written word, so should they develop the skills to critically interpret the 3000 media images they confront daily. Moreover, bullying among girls can be motivated by competition over media ideals of beauty and female perfection.
  • Examine (through self-study) school practices that unwittingly support unfairness, competition, and divisiveness among students, such as the uneven distribution of resources, and eliminate or alter practices that privilege some students more than others.
  • Social class differences are often subtly exacerbated in school functions and sometimes small changes can help poor and working class youth feel less vulnerable and exposed: schools that issue and publicly celebrate yearbooks should ensure that all students receive a yearbook; school functions that enlist students to raise funds by selling products to their families and friends can eliminate public "selling contests" that underscore the haves and have-nots; special "school-wide" events tied to monetary contributions (such as special celebrations for those children who contribute a library book), should be eliminated unless they are, in fact, subsidized and available to all students. Tracking systems, if they must exist, should be examined for the over-representation of poor or working class students or students of color.
  • Courageous school leadership at all levels (school board, superintendents, principals, teachers, etc.) that shows a clear willingness to stand firm on behalf of fairness and justice for all students.

Copyright: Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., 2005 Professor of Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Colby College, Waterville, ME 04901

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Helping Youth Change Aggressive Behaviors

The word "discipline" comes from the same root as the word "disciple" and means "to teach."
We are most likely to succeed in helping young people change their aggressive behavior when we use the principles of good teaching in our discipline interventions.

We start with the ABCs:

  • Respect young peoples’ Autonomy. We can’t make them change. We can increase the cost of their existing behavior by following through consistently with consequences. We can build supportive relationships so they want to be contributing members of the school. We can recognize their positive actions. They will choose their behavior; we can help them see they have a choice and help them find the best choices for themselves.
  • Maintain young peoples’ sense of Belonging. When we welcome youth to school each day; when we build mentoring relationships; when consequences are seen as being earned instead of being given in anger or rejection; when we avoid taking their misbehavior personally; and when we maintain positive feeling tone in the discipline process, young people are more likely take responsibility for negative behaviors and to change.
  • Teach Cause and Effect thinking and promote conscience development. We help young people see the connections between what they do and what happens to them through using predictable, transparent, consistent discipline approaches. We can use praise to help them connect their positive behavior with positive outcomes. We can help them discover the positive and negative effects of their actions on others through observation and reflection. We can use questions instead of statements whenever possible so young people learn to think about their own goals and about their behavior.

The following steps help us set up effective interventions to encourage young people to change aggressive behavior.

  • Create a school bullying prevention committee to oversee efforts to reduce aggression. This group can arrange staff training, oversee the effectiveness of the program, suggest changes, and monitor the consistency of interventions.
  • Train all staff. Staff behavior is the key element in effective behavior interventions. All staff members, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and educational technicians, serve as models for respectful behavior. Consistent staff response to aggression tells young people which behaviors are unacceptable. Consistent staff reporting is necessary to make discipline effective. Staff schoolwide should encourage students to report aggression rather than focusing on reducing ‘tattling’. And when staff avoid blaming the targets of bullying they send a clear message to bullies that they are fully responsible for their own actions.
  • Maintain positive feeling tone and strong staff-student connections. When young people know they belong and are welcomed, they are more likely to try out new behaviors and to learn from consequences. When they see all adults modeling respectful behavior, they are more likely to show respect to peers. Use a variety of mentoring strategies to build staff connections for all students. Because we help young people when we maintain optimism and the belief that young people can change, staff and administrators should avoid the use of anger as a discipline strategy. Bullying by staff and administrators should also be addressed in any intervention.
  • Address gender issues. Lyn Mikel Brown’s book Girlfighting and Michael Kimmel’s work on homophobic bullying among boys are good resources for action.
  • Use frequent descriptive praise for positive behavior. Praise is important when an aggressive young person breaks his or her pattern and acts responsibly and kindly- or even when aggression is less frequent or less intense over a period of time. Descriptive feedback ("I notice that you have been playing without fighting.") is more effective than trait-based praise ("You’re so kind") or I-messages (I’m so happy you are acting better.") Praise that names the result of the improved behavior helps young people see the positive effects of their changed behavior.
  • Develop staff-wide consensus about specific rules. Unacceptable behaviors are often grouped by level, based on potential harm. For example, three categories might be: teasing and exclusion, hitting, and severe harassment and physical aggression. Except for clearly accidental behavior, focus rules on actions or words rather than intention. Maintain one behavior standard whether the target ‘minds’ or not, or whether or not the aggressor and target are friends. Avoid the search for "who started it" and focus on the choices each student made- and on the alternative choices that were available.
  • Maintain a schoolwide reporting expectation for verbal and physical aggression. All staff report peer-to-peer aggressive behavior to one central person (often the principal or assistant principal) to emphasize the importance of this behavior and to allow for consistent administration of consequences. Note: this does not mean that other behaviors such as class disruption or failure to complete work are handled this way- these behaviors are often best handled by the teacher unless they become chronic.
  • Use a schoolwide behavior rubric - that is, a set of predictable escalating consequences - for aggression. The school outlines specific, predictable, and escalating consequences for each category of peer-to-peer aggression. Students with behavior Individual Education Plans (IEP) may have different consequences, but will have the same expectations. More severe behaviors will sometimes lead to more severe consequences, but make every effort to keep consequences predictable and consistent when possible. Within this rubric, remember that policy and law will mandate other consequences for legally defined harassment, criminal threatening, assault, and other crimes.
  • Administer consequences for aggression centrally. To ensure consistency and to make it clear that safety is a high priority, it works best when the principal or assistant principal is the one to receive reports of peer-to-peer aggression, carry out a brief interview of aggressive youth (focused on helping the student take responsibility for the behavior and look up his or her consequence on the rubric), and investigate when necessary. The administrator sends a letter home outlining behavior, consequence, and consequence next time. Copies go to teacher and file.
  • Support reflection and development of empathy after consequences are known. During consequence time (inside recess, quiet lunch away from peers, detention, or in-school suspension), the person supervising this time can help young people to complete a reflection form in which they write about what they did, how that behavior affected the target, what goal they were trying to reach through those actions, and how else they can reach those goals in the future. This reflection is often done by several young people in parallel, on clipboards or at desks, with the person on duty moving between them the way a writing teacher will edit with one student after another. Ask open- ended questions that promote reflection ("What did you do" "What was wrong with that?" "What goal were you trying to reach?" Next time you have that goal how will you reach it without hurting anyone?") Avoid questions like "Why did you do it?" or "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" as they may provide the youth with an opportunity to blame the target, give excuses, or trivialize the behavior.
  • Involve parents. Let parents know about both positive and negative behaviors relating to the aggressive behavior. Tell them when young people tell the truth about their own actions, when they show concern for the effects of their actions, and when they are respectful during the discipline process. Help parents find roles in the school’s intervention (for example, praise or reward at home for positive behavior) and give them credit when things change. Invite them to suggest better interventions ("What would you like us to do next time?") rather than reacting defensively when they criticize our interventions. When there are consistent issues between parents and the school, meet with parents regularly (not just when there is a crisis) to strengthen working relationships. Involve parents in community-wide efforts to reduce cyber-bullying and limit young peoples’ exposure to violent media.
  • Involve community partners. There are many potential partners whose collaboration will help a bullying prevention effort. Working with domestic violence prevention programs and sexual assault prevention programs can be especially helpful; the United Way and other community coalitions can also help mobilize resources. Local businesses may wish to help spread the word, support programming, and sponsor special events.
  • Support peer bystanders. Encourage students to speak up in safe ways about bullying, to tell staff what they see and hear, and to befriend isolated peers. Thank and protect young people who report aggressive behavior toward themselves or toward others. Train and support a self-selected group of bystanders who want to be more effective at stopping bullying and exclusion in real-life situations.
  • Show parents, students and staff that the program is working and what they are doing to make a difference. Specific positive feedback to parents, staff and students about declining rates of aggression help them continue changes. Feedback about what they are doing to make a difference is also important.

© Stan Davis,, 2006 based on Schools Where Everyone Belongs, Research Press

What’s the difference between teasing, bullying, and harassment?

This question comes up often in my trainings. Some people working in bullying prevention emphasize the importance of making a distinction between ‘fun and friendly’ teasing and ‘hurtful’ teasing; between normal aggression and bullying; or between teasing and bullying. When we make the distinction, they say, we can advise young people not to let the normal behavior bother them, and apply consequences and increased supervision to the more serious behaviors.

The three criteria that most people making these distinctions depend on, in my view, are power differential, intent, and impact.

Actions by someone who is more popular, older, or otherwise has more power are seen as more likely to be bullying. Actions that involve a clear intent to hurt are seen as bullying. And actions that are unwelcome are seen as bullying.

In my experience, it is quite difficult in practice to understand the power hierarchies in a classroom or a school. Another factor that makes this distinction difficult is the skill some aggressive youth have in covering up their intent to hurt. Young people who bully often describe their aggressive actions as ‘an accident’ or ‘a joke’, or say that they are ‘just teasing.’ They often assert that they did not know their actions could cause harm. To make this distinction more difficult, some targets of bullying cover up their emotional reactions for fear of being thought weak or fear of retaliation if they ‘get someone in trouble’ by telling. On the other hand, some targets of low-level normal aggression over-react to the smallest insult or push. I am convinced that we often cannot distinguish between ‘normal’ aggression and bullying with any certainty. When we make this distinction a central feature of our discipline interventions, we risk giving too much power to bullies who are skilled at hiding their intentions. We risk reinforcing the over-reactions of anxious youth by letting them define bullying as ‘anything that bothers me.’

School discipline interventions are most effective when they focus on actions rather than focusing on the aggressor’s intention or on the effects of the behavior, unless the action was clearly accidental. We can say: "We don’t allow those words here," or "we don’t allow hitting," instead of "You are bullying." A similar idea was created in sexual harassment policies, when instead of just prohibiting behavior that was unwelcome to the target of the behavior we focused on actions that are likely to create a hostile work environment. Some words and some actions are likely to create a hostile learning environment. When we define those unacceptable actions school-wide and enforce those expectations consistently, we are more likely to be able to change behavior.

Harassment, on the other hand, is a clearly differentiated subcategory of bullying. It involves apparent intent, power differential, and specific content defined by law, which may be sexual, race-based, or disability- based. Depending on the evolution of state and federal laws, other categories of bullying may be defined as harassment.

When bullying is also harassment, it is important to call it harassment because that determination provides the target with specific rights and the intervention with more power.

This diagram shows bullying as a subset of peer-to-peer aggression. We reduce bullying behavior when we use consistent, non-hostile, and slowly escalating consequences for peer-to-peer aggressive behavior that we have decided has no place at school. To be effective, any use of consequences has to function within the context of positive modeling by staff, frequent use of praise, positive feeling tone, and strong staff-student relationships. Harassment is a subset of bullying and should be treated as harassment because that identification further protects the rights of targets.


Harassment based on gender, race, ethnic origin, disability, or sexual orientation.  Sexual harassment. Other types of harassment as defined by law.

Stan Davis
(c) 2006

Aggression Bullying target

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Youth as Bully Prevention Leaders

In Maine, we honor and respect the involvement and voices of youth, as central to good policy and programming. Without significant youth involvement in the every-day infrastructure to improve youth to youth and adult to youth communication and relationships, we can never hope to positively change school and community climate.

Below is a list of what YOUTH can do, as active participants in creating emotionally and physically safe climate and reduced bullying and harassment.

  • Request training in bystander empowerment; ask your school for practical ways to intervene in situations where peers are being bullied or harassed
  • Request diversity training to increase awareness of how gender, sexual orientation, race, social class and sexual identity impacts students’ experiences of school.
  • Join your school’s Civil Right Team or other youth leadership or social justice focused groups.
  • If your school doesn’t have one, start a Gay-Straight Alliance.
    Talk with faculty and staff about concerns you have about school climate, bullying, or harassment.
  • Become familiar with your school’s sexual harassment and bully-prevention policies.
  • Request that media literacy be addressed in appropriate academic and health courses.
  • Request student involvement in school-wide committees or plans to initiate bully-prevention efforts and programs. Ask to participate in the creation of school policies and rules designed to reduce bullying and harassing behavior.
  • Speak up when you see unfair school practices or treatment of students by school staff.

Find other students who share your concerns and brain-storm student-initiated events or social actions that address safe climate or communication across social groups. Here are some ways to educate your school community and improve the school climate for all kids!

  • Help to create a diverse school library
  • Create safe spaces in your school
  • Produce a documentary of student life
  • Create a school climate survey
  • Brainstorm safe ways for students to speak out and feel supported
  • Start a Diversity Day
  • Initiate a school-wide forum or conference, with student speakers and diversity panels
  • Write editorials to your school newspaper or local city newspaper
  • Initiate educational “Theme Months” that inform students about different social groups
  • Bring in guest speakers
  • Create handouts & information boards
  • Educate your peers about school non-discrimination & anti-harassment policies
  • Organize a movie and discussion event
  • Provide outreach to middle schools
  • Create brochures that educate about cyber-bulling or sexual harassment
  • Initiate a Teach the Teachers event