Bullying is a problem that transcends generations. The devastating effects have forced victims into isolation and pushed some to suicide. Every story of bullying gone too far sparks a firestorm of frustration and outrage. Parents, teachers, and society as a whole are blamed. Along with the accusations come demands for action. Despite calls for legislation, programs, or harsh punishment for bullying, there is no simple solution.

Yet the situation is not hopeless. As the largest preparer of Illinois teachers, Illinois State University faculty, staff, and students are taking a stand against bullying through research, curricula, and programming.

Transforming lives

It was a hot afternoon when Patty Franz, School of Communication administrative aide, pulled in front of her granddaughter’s junior high. She emerged from the building running and with streaming tears. She threw her backpack in the back seat, jumped in the car, rolled up the window, and told her grandma to drive.

“She said, ‘Get out of here right away, grandma. Some girls are going to beat me up,’” Franz recalled. “I asked why. She said, ‘I don’t know. I guess they don’t like me.’”

Franz knew what was happening to her granddaughter wasn’t isolated. She had seen reports of children bullied to the point of mental breakdown, or in extreme cases, suicide. She decided to take action.

“I have access to a lot of resources working at ISU,” Franz said. “I talked to the chair, I talked to faculty, and I talked to graduate students.”

With civic engagement a high priority for the School of Communication, four graduate students who had their own dealings with bullying volunteered to help Franz. One student was a mother of a child who had been bullied at the same school, one had a sister that bullied students at that junior high, one had been bullied, and another had a friend who had committed suicide as a result of bullying.

The group named themselves Transformers and partnered with teachers and administrators at Normal’s Parkside Junior High School to deliver lesson plans promoting positive social behavior.

When word spread, the group of four students grew to 20.

With so many ISU students involved, School of Communications Professor Cheri Simonds began working with the Transformers to make sure students were consistently trained. Simonds adapted the curriculum in her Seminar in Communication Education course to allow students to take an academic approach to the problem.

“I knew there was a connection between social aggression and the solution of using communication skills to address it,” Simonds said. “I wanted to see what could be done in terms of teacher training to address the problem.”

Transformers students enrolled in Simonds’ course and examined programs on modeling and teaching social and emotional learning. One program identified was Second Step, a nationally renowned bully prevention program that uses social-emotional learning skills to address problems. Simonds led her students in developing a training program on using Second Step kits that could be delivered by Transformers.

After assessing their efforts, Simonds and her students found that programs have a greater impact when lessons are delivered in the classroom and by a person with whom the students already have a relationship.

“What we decided was that we needed to focus our efforts on teacher training,” Simonds said. “If we could train the trainer to go in and deliver the instruction, then we could have a greater impact and more sustainability with our efforts.”

Despite the focus on teachers, Simonds does not believe that the burden of bullying should rest solely on teachers.

“We have state mandates in place without prerequisite training teachers need to address them,” Simonds said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault. They have not been equipped with the tools they need to address the problem.”

Transformers has evolved from a volunteer group creating programming focused on students to an academic workshop experience that develops programming for teachers. The group partnered with ISU’s Documentary Project to host a screening of Director Lee Hirsch’s documentary, Bully. The film gave viewers a candid look at the impact of bullying. The group has since moved from delivering training based on Second Step kits to instead distributing the less costly resources and materials that accompany the book and documentary as a way of reaching a wider audience.

Simonds and Franz continue their efforts to stop bullying, now partnering with School of Communication instructors Anna Wright ’10, M.S. ’13, and Julie (Boyd) Navickas ’07, M.S. ’10, through the Peaceful Schools Committee. Members work with students, teachers, and other community members to ensure all children have a safe place to learn and grow.

“The end goal is to give educators the tools they need to implement these social-emotional learning skills and reduce social aggression,” Simonds said. “Bullying is the problem. Social-emotional learning is the solution.”

Preparing for the classroom

Bullying is a prominent topic in Erin Mikulec’s Issues in Secondary Education. An assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, Mikulec discusses bullying with her class from the perspectives of general classroom management to legal implications. Such a broad spectrum highlights how the topic can become convoluted.

“Schools, districts, and states are wrestling with to what extent they are responsible for bullying that happens off of school property. It used to be that if you and I didn’t get along in school, I went home and home was a safe place,” said Mikulec, who is also an assistant professor of education. “But now we have things like Facebook, so it follows you everywhere and you can’t get away from it. That perpetuates a lot of issues with bullying.”

Mikulec encourages her students to be mindful of potential bullying situations.

“Very few students will come to a teacher and say they are being bullied by another student between classes in a hallway,” Mikulec said. “So I tell them to be mindful, stand in the doorway during passing periods, and listen to what kids are talking about.”

Mikulec also offers her students clinical experiences through a partnership with The Alliance School of Milwaukee. Founded with a mission to reduce bullying, the Alliance School is an LGBTQ friendly school. It has become nationally renowned for its emphasis on restorative justice, democratic governance, and as a haven where students are free to be unique.

Alliance students are able to take any issues they have with one another to the “restorative justice circle,” which allows participants to recognize that harm has been done to another and then begin to repair the relationship.

“It is a powerful experience,” Mikulec said. “It is an opportunity to hear some of the things students have been through, the things teachers did or didn’t do to help them, and how they may have facilitated the harm caused by other people.”

To Mikulec, beginning the dialogue on bullying is an important step toward reducing occurrences. However, while online forums and social media create an outlet for the full impact of bullying to come to light, they also create other venues for bullies.

“The same thing that can perpetuate bullying is also the same thing that is increasing dialogue,” Mikulec said. “It’s an interesting catch-22. The dialogue needs to continue. It’s not just an issue for schools to deal with. Teachers, parents, and the community are all responsible for modeling appropriate behavior.”

A problem for everyone

Stories of children turning to suicide to escape tormentors regularly shock audiences, but have become commonplace in today’s media. Unfortunately these tragedies are often the culmination of problems that have festered for generations.

Studies conducted by federal agencies over the 2007–2008 school year showed that 25 percent of public schools reported bullying occurring on a daily or weekly basis. BullyingStatistics.org noted that 71 percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem. Along that same vein, about one out of every 10 students drops out or changes schools because of repeated bullying.

Professor of Special Education E. Paula Crowley studies the abuse and neglect of children with disabilities, and her research has given insight into bullying behavior.

Where most see bullying only as a childhood problem, Crowley identifies it as a lifelong problem.

“We’re concerned about bullying in schools, but bullying happens in every institution in every aspect of our society in every corner of our world,” Crowley said. “It is present anywhere human beings are not respected and accepted and cared for and shared with. When there is incivility or intolerance, there is bullying. It is not a childhood problem. It is a human problem, and it occurs across the lifespan.”

To Crowley, we all fit into one of or a combination of the following roles: bully, victim, bully-victim, bystander, or prosocial advocate. Aside from bully and victim, bully-victims are those who have been bullied and in turn become bullies, thereby exhibiting the behaviors they have experienced. Bystanders observe bullying behavior and consequently promote it by not taking action. Prosocial advocates model tolerance, respect, acceptance, sharing, caring, and genuine curiosity. In most cases prosocial advocates do not even realize they are advocating against bullying as these positive behaviors are part of their disposition.

“Bullies will not continue when someone intervenes on an individual basis,” Crowley said. “Bullying is addressed one-by-one, child-by-child, and interaction-by-interaction.”

So what is the solution to the bullying problem? While Crowley acknowledges that there are no easy answers, she endorses a three-tiered model: promoting prosocial behavior on a universal level, creating programs to foster development of communications and positive problem-solving skills in children and adults at the secondary level, and engaging individuals in programs that focus on those who are bullies, victims, or bully-victims on the tertiary level.

“Bullying prevention is not just the work of teachers only, nor is it the work of parents only,” Crowley said. “We all like to point at everyone else and too quickly it becomes everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”

Bullying defined

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” (StopBullying.gov)

Anti bullying resources

  • StopBullying.gov: A website with anti-bullying resources managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • TheBullyProject.com: The official website of the social action campaign inspired by the documentary, Bully.
  • CDC.gov: Statistics and resources on youth violence and prevention compiled by the Center for Disease Control.