Are anti-bullying programs just feel-good attempts to solve a serious problem?

by Grace

Anti-bullying programs don’t work.  In fact, they increase the odds of being a bullying victim.

Anti-bullying programs that are now commonplace in schools may be having the opposite of their intended effect, according to new research from the University of Texas, Arlington.

In a study published in the Journal of Criminology on Thursday, a team of researchers found that students at schools with anti-bullying initiatives are actually more likely to be victims of bullying than students who attend schools without such programs.

Speculation about the reasons anti-bullying programs don’t work:

  • Bullies are able to learn how better to escape detection.
  • Educational programs increase the reporting of incidents.
  • Knowledge simply does not translate to prevention, and more sophisticated programs are needed

Schools use many programs that “lack solid evidence about their effectiveness“.

Among many educators, ‘personal anecdote trumps data’.

… Too often, they are swayed by marketing or anecdotes or the latest fad. And “invariably,” he added, “folks trying to sell a program will say there is evidence behind it,” even though that evidence is far from rigorous.

While Rachel’s Challenge and DARE both engage students, they don’t reduce bullying and drug abuse.

I once challenged the use of Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-bullying program, in our local schools.  When I questioned why the school was spending time and money on an anti-bullying program that could only offer “anecdotal” evidence of its efficacy, I was met with protests that it engaged many students and moved them to tears with its stories.

Another feel-good program is DARE, which aims to prevent drug abuse and violence,  Local teachers have acknowledged there is no data showing it works.  Again, their defense is that it engages students.

Related:  ‘Schools of education focus on fads, not knowledge and skills’ (Cost of College)

15 Comments to “Are anti-bullying programs just feel-good attempts to solve a serious problem?”

  1. DARE engages students mainly because they get the pool party at the end! I think the main takeaway my kids had was that swimming with your friends in June is fun but chilly!

    Seriously, though, there is so much less bullying in our school, and so much more acceptance of differences, than in the old days that I am just amazed. I have a kid who would have been bullied continually in my schools, and he reports no problems at all. There was a kid who was quite autistic in their afterschool program, with many of the autistic tics, and the kids just accepted him. They played with him, and when he behaved oddly, they just said “oh, that’s how he is”. I think the parents had more trouble with it than the kids.

    Bullying in my junior high was constant and violent. Even girls beat up other girls. The teachers absolutely did not care, not did the parents. It was accepted as normal. This is something I do not see in the school now.


  2. Interesting … I had the opposite experience you did. But today teachers and parents certainly seem to “care” more.

    Overall, it’s hard to know if bullying has increased or decreased. It’s certainly true that awareness and reporting has increased. And then there’s cyber-bullying, which did not exist until recently.


  3. I can’t say whether bullying is more or less common than when I was a student—different schools have had different cultures, making comparisons difficult.

    I think that US News article may have confused correlation and causality. Schools with bad bullying problems may be more likely to institute anti-bullying programs. Even if the programs are partially successful, the schools may still have more bullying than places that never had a need to institute the programs.


  4. Well, one of my kids on paper should be a bully magnet, and since he has just started middle school, I have been paying attention to the possibility. One thing the school did was place him in a “lunch bunch”. They do that for kids who seem to be at risk for being ostracized. They ask the kid and the kids parents for names of other kids to participate. The idea seems to be to build up a peer group. My oldest participated in one that was set up for a kid who was definitely at risk, and it worked out beautifully. The 4 of them have been fast friends for 3 years now, and do everything together. Even though my oldest wasn’t the “at-risk” kid, it really helped him too. So I am glad my next kid is getting to do one. I think stuff like that may make more difference then largescale programs like DARE.


  5. “Schools with bad bullying problems may be more likely to institute anti-bullying programs. ”

    That might be true, but in New York all schools are required to include “character” education in their curriculum, and I suspect almost all schools help fill that slot with an anti-bullying program.


  6. That “lunch bunch” certainly sounds like it works, at least sometimes.

    I know a student who was “asked” to participate in something similar, but it actually turned him off and made him cynical since it seemed too artificial. This student was viewed by teachers as a very nice “good” kid, but apparently they didn’t see how he really viewed the situation.

    The bullying that I know of seems to take place with school staff mainly unaware. It’s not blatant, taking place out of sight of staff, and the kids are reluctant to complain.


  7. OTOH, I rarely saw bullying when I was in school. One high school I attended had some tough characters, but the girls’ fights in the bathrooms never seemed to be about bullying. In hindsight, maybe some of it was. But it just seemed to be about kids challenging each other over disagreements, perceived snubs, or boyfriend/girlfriend issues.


  8. Was the student the at-risk kid or a potential buddy? I can see that certain kids would not want to do this, especially kids who are already aspiring to coolness, or take a jaded view of things. Though my oldest can be very jaded, and yet he was thrilled to be asked. The lunch groups seem to be pretty common with a lot of “normal” kids participating, so perhaps (at least in middle school) the ubiquity makes kids more interested in doing one.


  9. The student was a potential buddy, but probably felt it cut into his coolness factor. Plus, he simply didn’t see it having much effect. But this was a case where the at-risk kid was special needs, so a slightly different situation.

    Trying to imagine myself as the at-risk kid, I think if I was aware I might have the uncomfortable feeling of being pitied.

    I would love to be able to spy on the lunchrooms of our middle and high schools. From the stories I’ve heard, it can be brutal*. But I’d like to see for myself how the dynamics really work.

    * Mainly have heard “mean girl” stories.


  10. “I would love to be able to spy on the lunchrooms of our middle and high schools. From the stories I’ve heard, it can be brutal*. But I’d like to see for myself how the dynamics really work.”

    “The bullying that I know of seems to take place with school staff mainly unaware. It’s not blatant, taking place out of sight of staff, and the kids are reluctant to complain.”

    I wonder if putting up a bunch of cameras would help. If the bullies only do their bullying out of sight of staff, and they are aware of the cameras, the cameras would seem to limit their opportunities to bully.


  11. “I wonder if putting up a bunch of cameras would help.”

    Hmm, they do have some cameras for security. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of cameras increase significantly over the next ten years, just because that’s the way the world is going.

    Much of the bullying may be too subtle to be detected by cameras, however. Just to give one real-life example, a table of girls might “shun” one person because the queen bee dictated this behavior. The victim might stay at the table eating in silence, either because she’s hoping to get back in their good graces or because she feels she has nowhere else to sit. A camera might not catch this at all.


  12. I’m not sure I would consider shunning to be bullying. To me, that is just a case of rudeness and immaturity. When I think of bullying, I think of the 4th grader I knew in Houston who terrorized us first graders by threatening to throw us in the bayou (he used to pick us up and dangle us over the edge). That kind of behavior was seen as normal back in those days, and as something that we kids were supposed to work out on our own. Nowadays, I think most schools would intervene, and if they didn’t, the parents would.


  13. Shunning like that is definitely considered bullying by conventional standards.


  14. Shunning is considered bullying nowadays, but was not when CSProfMom and I were growing up.

    There are differences among threats of violence, verbal abuse, slander, and ostracism. Lumping them all together as “bullying” muddies the water and makes progress hard to see. If a school moves from frequent threats of violence and verbal abuse to ostracism, there has been substantial progress, even if “bullying” by your definition has not decreased.

    The same broadening of terms has happened in other areas as well, requiring additional modifiers to get back to the original meanings. These changes in meanings of terms makes historical comparisons difficult and progress hard to measure.


  15. Yes, I agree progress over the longer term is hard to measure. They probably do have information on changes in physical violence in schools, where definitions have likely not changed much. OTOH, we probably have better reporting today.


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