A Promising Approach to Bullying at school:

The Maine Bullying Prevention Program

by Chuck Saufler M.Ed.
This article was published in the Nov./Dec. 2004 edition of the American School Counselor Association Journal, ASCA School Counselor.

As a guidance counselor in an elementary school I often find myself outside during recess times. I was on the playground the last day of school in 1999 when a third grade boy ran up to me and excitedly asked me to sign his autograph book. He handed me a booklet he had put together with his teacher for this occasion. Each page had a heading on it having to do with his third grade experiences. The last page was titled "Autographs of my teachers." As I was thinking about what to write I noticed the title of the preceding page, "This years' news stories". On that page there was only one thing written, Columbine High School. There was a drawing of a gun firing bullets below these three words. It struck me that schools, for this child and thousands like him, would never seem quite as safe a place as they were prior to the Littleton, Colorado tragedy.

As we have all heard and read in the media accounts and explanations of the Columbine H.S. event and subsequent school shootings, "It could happen anywhere." This concept has crept into the psyche of every parent and child in our country and increased our anxiety level about how safe we really are in school.

In the wake of the Columbine tragedy it came out that nearly three quarters of the school shootings in the United States were planned acts of revenge by victimized students as the result of being bullied and harassed by peers at school.

In response, schools and communities all across the USA have assembled teams to create disaster plans and form crisis response teams. Legislatures are considering tighter controls on firearm sales. There is renewed interest in our communities about addressing media and video game violence. Virtually all schools have reviewed their security measures. Many schools have implemented metal detectors, uniformed police officers, photo identification security systems, and video surveillance as deterrents to such incidents. Schools are having "lock down " drills. "Lock down" is a procedure that comes directly from our correctional facilities. Is this where we're heading? Are we going to turn our schools into mini correctional facilities in the name of security? Is this the vision for schools in the new millennium? Let's hope not. Let us instead think of long term preventive measures, which should make the above paraphernalia, associated with crime and criminals an anathema to our schools. The state of Maine has taken steps in this direction. 1

The Maine Project Against Bullying (MPAB) was a task force which had been assembled by the Maine DOE in 1997, funded by a Perkins grant, to study the issue of harassment in elementary schools. Over the three years of the project the work of the task force included developing a survey instrument suitable for administration to elementary level students, developing baseline data on the extent of bullying behavior in Maine schools, and the provision of training to schools statewide who wished to implement bullying prevention initiatives. In January of 1999 the MPAB distributed a survey to 4496 third graders in 128 elementary schools throughout the state of Maine to examine the frequency that students were exposed to bullying behaviors, their perceptions of safety, and how they react to being bullied. The results of this survey indicated that 40% of students surveyed were teased in a mean way; 40% were called hurtful names; 34% were left out of things on purpose, 22% were threatened; and 37% were hit, kicked or pushed frequently. When this behavior was reported to adults in the school, 37% of children said that nothing changed or that the bullying got worse. 2 This survey indicated that there was a serious need for actions to be taken to assure that Maine Schools were properly prepared to address the bullying issue. The MPAB responded by developing a "Maine Model" training program for schools based upon the successful program developed by bullying researcher Dr. Dan Olweus. The Olweus program is recommended by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) as one of the Blueprints for Violence Prevention. The Maine model made modifications to the Olweus program to make it more easily adopted in Maine schools. The most significant of these was the elimination of a part-time staff position as coordinator of the program and a reduction in the amount of time in training and ongoing discussion groups for staff. Staff training also differed from the Olweus model by including a segment on the brain research focusing on behavior and classroom management. The Perkins Grant ended in 2000 and through a violence prevention grant from the Department of Human Services the project was moved, at that time, to the Maine Law and Civics Education Program at the University of Southern Maine Law School. A small team of professional consultants and trainers was recruited and the first training of trainers took place. These consultants provide the initial coordinating committee and staff training and act in a continuing consultant capacity to each school. Since then the Maine Law and Civics Education program at the University of Maine School of Law has worked with schools throughout Maine to implement a comprehensive approach to bullying prevention. The program's goal is to "work with schools that have a commitment to bullying prevention, through staff training, parent involvement, curriculum implementation, bullying intervention strategies and school climate improvement." The emphasis is on training all the adults in the school, who have the responsibility for establishing a bully-free school climate.

The program includes six phases summarized below. This is a systemic intervention program so it is important to note they are not necessarily sequential but that ongoing work takes place in several phases simultaneously.

  1. Introduction of Program: This includes providing an awareness presentation, generating staff support, conducting a survey to collect baseline data, selecting a coordinating committee, and notifying parents.
  2. Train Staff: This includes providing a staff development workshop in bullying prevention, training the coordinating committee, and introducing bullying education curricula and resources.
  3. Develop Bullying Prevention Policies: This includes adopting school standards of conduct, school and class rules against bullying, providing community/parent awareness sessions, and initiating consistent documentation of bullying incidents.
  4. Introduce Bullying Education Curriculum: This includes selecting and purchasing of age-appropriate curricula, integrating the curricula into classes, and initiating class meetings where students can discuss and learn about bullying prevention.
  5. Reinforce Bullying Prevention: This includes providing appropriate interventions for students engaging in bullying behavior, creating a "community of caring," updating staff and training new staff.
  6. Evaluate the Program: This includes evaluating the program by reviewing policies, practices, and programs, re-administering the student survey to measure changes, and revising the program to meet changing needs. 3

Interested elementary and middle schools apply to participate in the program. The first step is a school-wide awareness presentation on bullying prevention based on the research. If the administration, teachers and staff decide to commit to the program, staff in-service training is scheduled, at least six hours in length, presented by Law & Civics trainers. A coordinating committee is established, to provide program leadership inside the school. The school administers a bullying survey to its students to assess the type and prevalence of bullying behavior, as perceived by the students themselves. The coordinating committee works with the trainer/consultant assigned to the school to plan program implementation strategies and additional staff development or "reflective practice" sessions. The coordinating committee and/or teachers select curricula to teach bullying prevention and conflict resolution skills to all students, to help create the values of respect, responsibility and inclusion within the student body. As part of the bullying prevention program, the staff creates or reviews the student code of conduct; revises the discipline policy to include graduated consequences; improves adult supervision in problem areas such as playgrounds and hallways; documents incidents of aggressive and bullying behavior; handles such incidents appropriately, including serious talks with the bully, victim, and parents; and makes referrals to school and community resources as necessary. The goal is to create a safe, caring and respectful school climate for all students and staff. The school climate work is the heart of the prevention program and is not time limited. 4

The Maine Law and Civics Program contracted with the University of Maine's Center for Research and Evaluation to evaluate the Bullying Prevention Program in the first eight schools with whom they worked. The evaluation consisted of two components. First, all participating schools conducted student surveys at the start of their efforts or soon thereafter and again at the end of the school year. The time between surveys ranged between 10 months and 13 months. The design for this evaluation was a cohort design, which looked at students in similar grades before and after the intervention without a control group. Given this limitation it is encouraging that significant decreases in the percent of students being bullied (14-21%), witnessing bulling (13-21%), and engaging in bullying (17-27%) were identified. 5 These results are promising and show that schools that acknowledge the problem, and organize to address it following a comprehensive approach, can impact the bullying problem significantly in the first year of implementation. The expectation is that these results will improve as program efforts are sustained. This is a long-term intervention designed to impact both norms and behavior in a school and needs to continue from year to year using survey data to refocus intervention strategies from time to time.

It must be noted that this program is not a curriculum, a conflict resolution approach, a peer mediation program or an anger management program. It is also not a smorgasbord approach which many schools adopt where they do some of the above but in an uncoordinated non-comprehensive manner. It is rather a comprehensive, coordinated, research based approach that is systems oriented and focused on changing the norms of relational behavior at school. It relies heavily on raising the awareness of all adults and engaging them in training to intervene in a way that is timely, consistent, firm (not hostile), respectful and brief. It is critical to develop a school climate characterized by emotional warmth, positive interest and involvement from adults and firm limits to unacceptable behavior. Without a coherent, consistent approach on the part of the adults at school any attempts at changing school climate will be very difficult, if not impossible. The Maine Bullying Prevention Education Program provides a framework for doing this important work. If the students could solve this problem by themselves, they would have by now.

REFERENCES
  1. Saufler, C., (2000). "Avoiding Littleton: The Best Defense." Journal of Maine Education, Volume XVI (Winter 2000), p.15-17.
  2. Saufler, C. (June 2000), "Executive Summary: A Survey of Bullying Among Maine Third Graders." Maine Project Against Bullying. p.2 http://lincoln.midcoast.com/~wps/against/execsummary.html
  3. Madden, M., and Allen, D., (2004), Bullying Prevention Project Evaluation Report, Unpublished report, Center for Research and Evaluation, College of Education and Human Development, University of Maine, 5766 Shibles Hall, Orono, ME 04469, p.1-2
  4. Maine Law and Civics Education Program, http://mainelaw.maine.edu/mlce/bully.htm
  5. Ibid., p.10-11