It seems that school bullies have been around almost as long as schools themselves. Who among us is not familiar with the child (or group of children) who terrorizes other students with taunts, teasing and, all too often, physical violence?
To suggest, however, that the national problem of bullying is nothing more than "kids being kids" or a child's rite of passage ignores statistics that the phenomena of bullying is increasing in our schools and occurring in earlier grades.
According to Bill Foster, President of School Perceptions LLC - a firm that specializes in gathering the opinions of students, staff and parents - bullying is widespread, with over 47 percent of recently surveyed middle and high school students agreeing that bullying is a problem at their school. Foster adds that if anyone thinks bullying is a problem reserved for older kids, it's not: 42 percent of elementary students reported bullying as a problem. A recent study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that found elementary school bullying to be widespread further demonstrates the problem.
Across all age categories, many students expressed a fear of going to and being in school. In actuality, more than 43 percent of survey respondents reported fearing harassment in the school bathroom and nearly 10 percent of urban high school juniors and seniors reported that they have missed at least one day of school each month out of fear of physical abuse.
The results of bullying are dire. Fearing reprisal, most bullied students don't notify teachers or parents and, as a result, become silent victims. When facing an ongoing abusive situation, some students turn to suicide. In other cases, students seek alternative means to ensure their own safety: According to a National School Boards Association report, more than 135,000 guns are brought to school each day by students, and the most common reason students give for bringing weapons to schools is for personal protection. In the most extreme of cases, school shootings are scenes where the bullied have become the bully.
To be sure, bullying and harassment at school is not a rite of passage; it is a public health crisis. But just as harassment and bullying is sheer terror for children, it is also frustrating for parents and educators. How can parents and educators ensure the safety and well being of their children when most abuse goes unreported? What strategies should be put in place to ensure student safety? How safe do students feel in their schools? The best answers to these questions come from a source closest to the problem: the students themselves.
The first step that should be taken by schools, districts and their communities to stop bullying and harassment is get an honest assessment from students - in addition to parents and school staff - about whether they feel problems exist, and if they do, then when, where and how often. A well-crafted and anonymous survey that provides immediate results allows students - even those who are bullied - to respond freely, allowing educators and parents to target problems, identify solutions and come to a common consensus.
In most cases, it is the students themselves who offer the best solutions to bullying; the key is to identify ways to listen to them.
Joe Donovan is vice-president with School Perceptions LLC, one of the nation's leading education research and consulting firm specializing in gathering, analyzing and acting on data to help schools and districts improve.