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Bullying: A Junior Hate Crime?

Serious research into juvenile bullying increasingly focuses on ways to curb what appears to many as an inevitable feature of the schoolyard.

In American schools, bullying is often as common as pop quizzes and uncomfortable plastic chairs. Yet seemingly harmless, juvenile taunts may lead to anxiety and depression, drug use or even violence.

A growing body of research seeks to help school administrators understand and curb bullying on school grounds — the hub of social interaction for most American children and, consequently, the center of bullying behavior. In the October issue of American Behavioral Scientist, Bridgewater State College professor Elizabeth Englander suggests a novel approach: Prevention programs could treat bullying behavior not merely as a conflict between children, but as a hate crime.

Though some research points to an increase in the amount of bullying nationwide, many experts say this is likely due to better data collection and more reporting by students, and that the incidence has actually held steady for decades.

Most agree that bullying affects millions of kids: One pair of researchers estimated that as many as 15 percent of U.S. children are frequently or severely harassed by their peers. Another study projected that 160,000 American children stay home from school one day per month for fear of being bullied.

Until recently, though, few psychologists studied the issue in depth. The change occurred shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Then a 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service said bullying played a significant role in many school shootings, adding urgency to bullying research and the development of new policies to eliminate it. The attention only increased as the explosion of Internet use gave rise to what’s now called “cyberbullying,” which includes harassing, threatening, tormenting or humiliating another person via e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, blogs, mobile phones, pagers or Web sites.

Many local school boards and parent-teacher associations have pushed for new anti-bullying programs, though their implementation nationwide has been uneven. While children are quick to recognize the problem, their parents and teachers often remain in denial.

“The adults say: ‘There’s no real problem here,’ or ‘They should just suck it up,’ and that we’re exaggerating,” Englander said. “It’s, ‘I think my school doesn’t have any issues,’ or ‘I don’t believe my child would ever do anything like that.’”

The paucity of research can leave even well-meaning principals at a loss for the right bullying prevention plan.

“Schools want to take this more seriously, but they don’t know how,” said Brenda High, co-director of Bully Police, an advocacy group for bullying victims.

The programs they choose often lack research to back up their effectiveness. University of Toledo professor Lisa Kovach, for example, described an “expert” who travels to Ohio schools, charging close to $1,000 per hour for a program unsupported by scientific evidence.

Many schools rely on proven courses, such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Developed during the 1980s by Dan Olweus, a Swede who conducted much of his research in Norway, it’s been successfully tested in several countries worldwide, including the U.S.

The straightforward program begins with the creation of a committee to oversee the anti-bullying campaign and an anonymous student questionnaire assessing the level of bullying in the school. Teachers and administrators are then trained to deal with bullying, and students and parents are taught about the problem. The school establishes anti-bullying rules, and school staff conducts “interventions” with bullies and their victims.

Yet Olweus has its limits. It’s expensive — $3,000 just for the two-day training of a school’s “Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee” — and its reliance on teachers to act as watchdogs means schools may still find it difficult to overcome underreporting.

“If kids fail to report bullying because the teacher is overbearing, the school will look like a utopia,” Kovach said.

Englander is one of several academics, including Kovach, incorporating recent research results into programs that seek to improve on Olweus’ methods.

An insight underpinning Englander’s current work is the idea that bullies choose victims specifically because they’re “different.” To adults, bullying a child because she’s nerdy may seem dissimilar from harassing her because she’s a member of a minority ethnic group. Yet Englander has observed that children often view the actions as equivalent.

“When children are looking for someone to abuse, they’re looking for a noticeable difference,” Englander said. “That person may be an unusually high achiever or could be someone belonging to a sensitive group. They don’t see the difference the way that we do.”

In almost every school Englander studied, teens discussing bullying described their peers’ failure to tolerate and respect differences. Though the students didn’t use the phrase “hate crime,” they employed language that meant virtually the same thing — indicating that the crimes were primarily motivated by the victim’s membership in a group.

Englander designed a program that incorporated hate-crime prevention strategies, emphasizing tolerance between groups. She also sent college students into middle and high schools to make students feel more comfortable discussing bullying. The initial results are promising: In more than half the schools they worked with, there was a significant increase in reporting of and talking about bullying. About nine in 10 teachers said it was extremely useful and practical.

“Ultimately, our hope is that the incidence will decrease,” she said. “But the first step is to find out what the incidence really is.”

Like Englander’s studies, much of the anti-bullying research is relatively new. The data are still inconclusive on the effectiveness of some common practices, such as putting bully and victim in a room together to resolve their conflict.

Whatever the right approach, political winds are shifting in favor of anti-bullying laws. Since 2001, more than half of U.S. states have enacted legislation to deal with bullying, with 11 new laws during the 2005-06 session alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They range from general statements prohibiting bullying to requirements for specific prevention programs and training within schools. There might be many more regulations, if not for some proposals having become culture war battlegrounds, with prolonged arguments over whether groups, such as gays, should be protected by the legislation.

As public officials and activists battle over the language, the research community continues on the path toward discovering what might work — and why.