Bazelon: Boys who are targets of bullying tend to have less physical strength than other boys, and girls who are targets tend to be more submissive. Also, bullies often pick lower-status targets they already don’t like. Sometimes they trump up a provocation, but sometimes the conflict starts for a reason that feels real to them—even if a neutral observer wouldn’t see it that way.
Cook: At one point, you make a parallel between fighting cholera outbreaks and preventing bullying. Can you explain this?
Bazelon: In 1854, a doctor named John Snow figured out the source of a cholera outbreak in London: Contaminated water that people were drawing from one particular pump in Soho. He persuaded the city authorities to remove the pump handle, and the spread of the disease immediately subsided. That story led to a key public health insight: With the right kind of intervention, you can break the hold of a mass problem. And that helps the people who still get sick, too, because as the number of patients becomes more manageable, it’s easier for them to get the care they need.
A group of researchers at the University of Oregon applied this insight to improving school culture in the 1990s. The idea is that in a school with a lot of behavior problems, if you can find the intervention that turns chaotic hallways and classrooms into orderly ones, most students will respond accordingly. And the kids who continue to act out will often be the ones with more serious problems, and since the school no longer has to deal with an epidemic of misbehavior, it can more easily concentrate on getting them the attention they’re asking for. The University of Oregon team started a framework for addressing school climate, called PBIS (Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports), which has shown success in reducing bullying.
Cook: How do they intervene?
Bazelon: PBIS is all about strengthening the connections between students and adults, for starters by building calm and order. Schools start by looking closely at the number of and reasons for referrals to the principal’s office—a key indicator of the health of a school, according to George Sugai, one of the framework’s creators. The idea is to figure out why exactly kids are getting referred for discipline and also where the bad behavior occurs. With the answers in hand, schools can address “hot spots” and then teachers can focus on students’ positive behavior—the ordinary things they do right during the day.PBIS wasn’t designed to address bullying directly, but a 2012 study by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins found that teachers in PBIS schools reported less bullying and peer rejection than teachers in schools without PBIS.
Cook: What is known about the long-term harm that bullying does — and how to recover?
Bazelon: For both kids who bully and kids who are targets, bullying has been linked to low academic performance, ongoing emotional problems, and (for bullies) drinking and drug problems, and a higher crime rate. Especially for LGBT kids, there is some evidence that bullying increases the risk of suicidal thinking and suicide attempts, though it’s important to say that most kids who are bullied, or who act like bullies, do not become suicidal.
In terms of recovery, that really depends on the particular child and the level of bullying he or she has experienced. Some kids recover with support from home and at school—a simple thing like changing a bus route or taking a break from a social network site can help a lot. In fact, for many kids, there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger—they do have the capacity for resilience. Other kids need much more intensive support, like counseling. The key is to look closely at each case individually, and talk to kids about how they’re feeling. We’re not very good at this point at predicting when an experience with bullying, however unpleasant, helps build character, and when it leaves kids seriously vulnerable.