A call for support of anti-bullying efforts and the The Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Last Sunday a 30 year old gay man was lured into a house in the Bronx where he thought he would be attending a party. Instead, he was tortured and sodomized by a group of teenagers and young adults. He was the third person tortured by the group for being gay that same weekend. The other two victims were just 17. Also last week, Tyler Clementi, a teenager and accomplished violinist who was just starting his freshman year at Rutgers University committed suicide after he was “outed” by his roommate who secretly video taped him having an encounter with another boy and streamed the video on the internet to other students. Earlier last month Billy Lucas hanged himself after being bullied because his classmates thought he was gay. Likewise, thirteen-year- old Asher Brown shot himself in the head and died after experiencing severe bullying by classmates in 2 different schools. Asher had recently told his parents that he was gay. Within days Seth Walsh, another 13 year old gay teen who had been bullied at his school killed himself. And the cases seem never ending. Eric Mohah, just 17, shot himself to death after being bullied relentlessly and called “homo” and “gay” and “fag”. He was 1 of 4 teens who had been bullied to death at the same Ohio school. The others included 16 year old Sladjana Vidovic, 16 year old Jennifer Eyring, and 16 year old Meredith Rezak, who was tormented by her peers after coming out as gay. In light of these tragedies, how could anyone oppose efforts to keep these kids from being bullied?

So, last Friday I stepped in unfamiliar territory when I posted on child-psych.org twitter account (@childpsychology) a call to our followers to tell the organization Focus on the Family to stop opposing anti-bullying programs at schools. I had been following the stories about Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that has a strong anti-gay position and opposes Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-PA) anti-bullying legislation, as well as stories about other Christian organizations that also oppose efforts to specifically protect gay teens from being bullied. But, from the messages that arrived soon after my twitter post, I learned that some of my followers actually agreed with the position of these conservative organizations and were upset at my post. I spent time trying to understand their logic, reading the official position of these organizations, and reading the comments on many websites where people adamantly oppose such anti-bullying efforts. And as I sat thinking how to respond, I realized that it was nearly impossible to argue with those whose views are driven by fundamentalist religious convictions. Beliefs such as that “gays are impure,” that they are “worse than terrorists,” or that those trying to stop bullying at our schools have a secret homosexual agenda and want to turn our kindergarten kids into the “homosexual lifestyle”, reflect a degree of hate and irrational paranoia that precludes the possibility for productive discussion. However, there was another line of arguments I found more sensible; at least as so far as it opened the door for a real scientific debate. Some indicated that the reason they opposed efforts to prevent bullying at schools is because they believe (incorrectly) that “bullying prevention programs don’t work”.

Putting aside the fact that “these programs don’t work” is not the argument used by Focus on the Family to oppose bullying prevention efforts, I want to tackle the assertion that anti-bullying programs don’t work. Efforts to stop bullying in schools are not new. Schools have tried to stop bullying for decades to various degrees of success. Likewise, researchers have been examining the effectiveness of these programs for years, which has greatly informed our understanding of what type of program work and what doesn’t work. For example, in 2007, Dr. Chael Vreeman and Dr. Aaron Carroll published an extensive examination of the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs around the world. The authors examined 3 main types of programs: 1) Curriculum interventions, 2) Whole School Interventions, and 3) Social Skills Training programs. Curriculum interventions are interventions that focus on modifications of the curriculum, which may include videos, classroom discussions, classroom presentations, etc. Whole School Interventions refer to programs that go beyond changes in curriculum to include school-wide efforts, such as teacher training, conflict resolution training, changes in school policies and sanctions, and individual counseling.  Social Skill Training programs are mostly focused on providing social and behavioral group interventions to kids involved in bullying. The authors examined 10 studies of curriculum based interventions, 10 studies of whole-school interventions, and 4 studies of social skills training programs.

So, do these programs work? It depends. The authors found that curriculum-based interventions did not usually work and in some cases made the problem worse. For example, one study found that bullying increased among young children exposed to the intervention. Likewise, another study showed that children previously identified as aggressive became even more aggressive when exposed to the curriculum-based intervention. In contrast, whole-school interventions were found to be very effective in reducing bullying, victimization, and anti-social behavior. Of the 10 programs examined, 8 showed significant benefits. However, two studies of the same program (the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program) provide some striking cues about how programs should be implemented. One study found this program to be extremely effective leading to “decreased bullying, decreased victimization, decreased antisocial behavior, and improved school climate after the intervention”. Yet, another study of the same program, as implemented at different schools, found that the program made the problem worse! That is, bullying among males actually increased! Why the difference? The two implementations of same program varied significantly in the degree to which the school staff members were involved, and how much the schools had contact with the researchers (who provided oversight). The schools where the program didn’t work had less involvement by the school staff and had limited contact with the researchers. It appears that external oversight of the implementation of the program and more involvement by school staff is critical and necessary to make these programs work. Finally, of the 4 social skills training programs examined, only 1 showed significant benefits and this was implemented with younger (3rd grade) students. There were no benefits when the social skills training program was provided to older students.

In sum, the research to date suggests that curriculum based interventions don’t appear to work. Bullying is a systemic problem and trying to solve it with simple modifications of the curriculum without addressing the entire school culture and other systemic issues is likely not effective. However, whole-school interventions can be very effective. These interventions are the model that schools should follow when implementing future anti-bullying campaigns. These results also tells us that we should reject the assertion that anti-bullying efforts don’t work as an excuse for opposing the implementations of programs to curve this grave problem. Anti-Bullying programs are necessary, can be effective, and need your support. Please contact your senators and ask them to support The Safe Schools Improvement Act.


And finally on a personal note, I wish we could stop the bullying of gay teens by simply asking parents to teach their children respect for their peers, but sadly too many parents hold beliefs that implicitly condone the harassment of gay teens. When we support politicians, religious leaders, and organizations that denigrate gay individuals, we become part of the problem. When you say that gay individuals are “immoral and impure” like Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer did, or that gays “should be barred from teaching positions”, like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint stated, or that AIDS “is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals” like Jerry Falwell asserted, or that gays are “the biggest threat that our nation has… even more so than terrorism”, like Oklahoma State Rep Sally Ker indicated, or when you have the Boy Scouts of America stating that gay individuals are immoral and not clean in thought, word, and deed, you are dehumanizing and denigrating gay teens and providing bullies with the moral justification for their actions.  I believe that the vicious anti-gay rhetoric that fills our airwaves, our churches, mosques, and synagogues, our political speeches, and our dinner tables, is partially responsible for the death of these children.  Words matter. Hate speech matters. We need The Safe Schools Improvement Act precisely because the Focus on the Family and other homophobic organizations are opposed to it. We need a law that facilitates the implementation of effective anti-bullying efforts that explicitly protect gay teens because we live in a society in which hatred and discrimination against gay teens and adults is not only accepted by many, but preached by our politicians, religious leaders and civic organizations.

Additional Resources:
The Trevor Project: Devoted to suicide prevention and gay youth acceptance.
The It Gets Better Project: Provides stories of hope to gay teens contemplating suicide.

The reference:
Vreeman, R., & Carroll, A. (2007). A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (1), 78-88 DOI: 10.1001/archpedi.161.1.78ResearchBlogging.org

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12 Responses to Special editorial: Bullying, gay teen suicides, and a need for a solution

  1. Anonyreader says:

    I have read with interest all the stories in the media lately about bullying – from the man who boarded his child’s school bus last month to the Tyler Clementi suicide to the 12-year-old who sexted a pic to her boyfriend that went viral and killed herself after silently enduring her classmates’ insults, and more. But while I see a lot of call for awareness and intervention, I don’t see a lot of help for parents of the bullies.

    I think that the basic crux of a bully – any bully – is an abysmally low sense of self-esteem, one which manifests by increasing his own sense of power or pleasure by debasing others. I am currently seeing this in an eight-year-old child whose parents are going through a divorce, with a mother who has equally low self-image, and I am feeling absolutely powerless to intervene. The child has no sense of control over her surroundings, and instead, seeks to control what she can. The parents seem too interested in blaming each other for the child’s distress, and not taking seriously what is within an eight-year-old’s realm to do, but even when playing a board game she is more intent on “destroying” someone else than winning on her own, even to the extent of cheating. Yes, the parents TELL her what is right and wrong, but something in her brain overrides it because the emotions borne from the threatened fear tell her to do so. Even when I’ve seen her father empower her by allowing her to make choices or building up her confidence, she uses it to try to control what others are doing, and collapses when she realizes that she can’t. I fear that this bossy, sullen and angry child today will become the bully of tomorrow. How on earth does a third party intervene when they see a child who is approaching a troubled teenagerhood?

  2. Graham Peter King says:

    Hi, I am glad to see the problem of bullying addressed, and systemic causes recognised as part of that. We know bullying occurs at many ages and has numerous ‘criteria’ by which bullies may select victims.

    I question though whether programs are wise to focus on sexuality – or on any other ‘criterion’ – which bullies may use. Is there not a risk of legitimising perceived difference of a bullied group, and seeming to be giving special protective treatment to that group (which may be resented, both outside and within that group)? May it not tend to bracket or label the victims with a fixed identity while they are still experimenting with who they are?
    Is it not rather the common humanity of all, that needs to be made clear? And the fact that it is the bully’s mindset and behaviour which is dysfunctional, in and of itself?
    It seems to me that bullies who fail to learn this basic lesson will remain bullies. When any one particular target-group is highlighted and declared now ‘off-limits’, and practical obstacles to bullying that group erected, will bullies not simply become more subtle/covert or find another target-group?

  3. Andrea says:

    Graham said:

    legitimising perceived difference of a bullied group, and seeming to be giving special protective treatment to that group (which may be resented, both outside and within that group)?

    I don’t think you will see anyone in the LGBT community resenting efforts to explicitly keep gay teens from being bullied to death. The notion that providing protective status to a class of individuals who have been the target of discrimination (or in this case abuse) would be a detriment to them has been used by conservatives to combat efforts to stop racial and gender discrimination for decades. It’s an old trick. It is not possible to teach kids to have respect the “humanity of all” while at the same time believing that gay individuals are undesirable. It’s a modern day “separate but equal.”

    [paragraph redacted by editor]

    Regarding your last argument, the proposals for anti-bullying campaigns are inclusive, and simply discuss the most common target categories (disabilities, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc). It is not like programs will teach only not to bully gay teens so that bullies will move on to attack the kids in wheel chairs. The programs are about not bullying in general, and the categories are provided as guidance because those are the most likely target of the bullies. The current argument against including these categories is mostly due to homophobia and the irrational fear that by acknowledging that gay teen exists other teens will become gay. We would not be having this debate if the list of targeted categories did not include sexual orientation.

    • Hi everyone, please note that I will not approve comments that are offensive or attack others. Andrea, yours was borderline but you made some valid points. Please everyone keep the discussion civilized.

      @Graham, anti-bullying programs are comprehensive and address bullying against anyone. However, when the focus of the bullying is on a specific category we must address that directly rather than ignore it in the context of a comprehensive program. It happened with race and gender in the past, and now it is happening with sexual orientation. Ignoring the discrimination against gay teens will not solve the problem (and it will not make homosexuality go away like many wish).

  4. Trish says:

    I attended a seminar on Implementation Science with Dean Fixsen this summer and learned a lot – although I am new to being exposed to this type of research. One of his graphs showed that the percentage of people who can take classroom based training and put it into practice, even with roleplaying or other practice in class, is only 5%. The rest of us need real-life coaching to learn a new skill, and I think that is why the whole-school implementations are the really effective ones.

    I would also like to say that as a Christian, I believe that all people should be safe from abuse or bullying in any form, whether I agree with everything they believe or not.

  5. Michelle says:

    I have heard quite a few people upset about specifically targeting gay youth who are bullied, arguing that more than just gay kids are bullied every day. However, I think generalized messages about bullying do little to actually address the issue at hand with gay kids. Kids see differences but don’t pick up on the cues on how to react to those differences if they are not told. Too often, society gives them the cue to harass and beat up the different people. They don’t, however, hear positive responses to differences very often.

  6. Pete says:

    Thank you for posting this and also the link to the actual research. I believe the bullying problem is global and our children learn it from us. The adults are often frustrated, angry and sometimes violent. Certainly our government acts the bully. If someone is self-shaming and self-hating unconsciously, they pass this on to their children. In the emotional hot-potato so many of us play, that’s the root of this victimization and TRAGIC assisted murders. Are the children and teenagers being shown appropriate models everywhere, or anywhere? It starts in my own backyard but it can’t end there. Violent and abusive modeling occurs throughout society. We must be vigilant in this and compassionate for all we meet. Why are youngsters so prone to victimizing their classmates? If I stand by for any injustice, then I have implicitly added my support to those that would kill all the Matthew Shepard’s on this planet. We must teach and act as if all of us are the same being. I am that person I’m afraid of, disdain, act out on, hate, condemn and generally disregard.

  7. Terry says:

    Excellent article! Always very refreshing to read
    an argument that includes the science behind it.

    One thing I’ve been puzzled about, is that on the
    subject of bullying, violent media is never mentioned.

    As I’m sure you are well aware, the science is quite
    clear that exposure to violent media (TV/movies/video games)
    increases aggression and desensitizes the viewer.

    Reducing exposure to violent media would not in, and
    of itself solve the problem of bullying, but it does
    seem logical that if parents would encouraged to put
    limits on how much violent media their kids are
    exposed to (especially in the lower grades) that that
    would have a helpful effect.

    I guess, I just don’t understand why this is never
    brought up as a salient element.

    Terry

    “Reducing the amount of time that grade-school children
    spend watching television and playing video games can
    make them less aggressive toward their peers, say
    researchers at Stanford University Medical Center.”

    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2001/january17/kidstv-117.html

    —–

  8. [...] a powerful impact on the daily quality of life children will enjoy?  Research has indicated that whole school interventions can be very effective in addressing the problem of bullying. This is a systemic problem that only [...]

  9. dunwoodie says:

    Why do people do this to others? because they want them selves to look good! why hurt and innocent person and then you look back and honesty have no idea what you’ve done! Just the them be! Its gone over the egde and gone way to far! Its absord how people can be so damn mean because 1 there sexualality 2 there race 3 the religon! this is just a waist of time to hurt others for no reason! It upsets me when I heard about a young boy for being gay and he got bullyied to death! I cant belive some one would do that! Let the gays live the life and live your own life! it dont matter what you are! Its great to make new friends but bullying for their sexualtlity is way over the egde! its sick its cruel and its just so freaking wrong! there is nothing wrong with being gay! I hope that kid lives with that deep deep horriable regrett for the rest of his life! I hope that haunts him and his family! there is no ecxuse to do that to any one! there is no excuse to bully any one for no reason whats so ever! end this and get served right for the innocent!

  10. Mota Ressu says:

    I have recently come out, and i find this disturbing, that there are people with these views. I’m only 17, and i don’t fear these people, but pity them. their minds are closed to the world, and they have lost their sense of reason. As for the bullying, i have told plenty of people in my school, and i have only gotten respect for being bold enough to be myself. Then again, Minnesota has been the most reasonable state i have been in. My own father does not particularly agree with the fact that i am gay, but he still accepts me. I suppose i am a a case where things have gotten better.

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