UW News

January 22, 2004

Dealing with bullies is subject of forum

For too long the school bully has been considered an unavoidable reality, according to one UW researcher.

Karin Frey, a research associate professor in the College of Education, says two programs are already in place and helping reduce the incidents of aggression and bullying in schools around the country. Frey will talk about Second Step and Steps to Respect — programs run by the Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children — during the college’s upcoming forum, “Safe Passage: Helping Kids Face Tough Challenges.”

The forum is set for Tuesday, Feb. 10 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Walker Ames Room, Kane Hall. Frey will be joined at the event by College of Education colleagues Diane Carlson Jones, Susan Nolen and Scott Stage.

Frey says the key to the Steps to Respect program is its thorough approach to dealing with bullying.

“It’s one thing to convince kids to report bullying,” Frey said. “It’s another thing to get adults to deal with bullying effectively.”

Steps to Respect trains adults to identify bullying and give them teaching methods that help prevent bullying from happening in the first place. But the programs also stress that the problem must be dealt with school-wide. There must be clear policies and a system that supports those policies.

When all that is in place, Frey says, it usually leads to less harassment.

“The kids reported less victimization on a survey,” she said. “We observed less bullying and that’s encouraging. Also, we observed less argumentative behavior. That’s important to us because there’s a classroom component that teaches basic social and friendship skills. There’s some evidence that kids who have friends are bullied less. And if they are bullied then they are less likely to suffer emotional stress.”

The classroom curriculum covers empathy, or the ability to identify with others; emotional regulation, or the ability to recognize and effectively express one’s own emotions; basic conflict resolution skills; and assertiveness skills. But at least as important, she says, is convincing adults of the severity of the problem.

“Adults have very little understanding of the amount of bullying that goes on,” she said. “It’s grossly underestimated. Students by and large don’t report it because they believe adults won’t intervene or won’t intervene effectively.”

Young people fear that adult inaction or ineffective action can have the wrong effect, leading to increased bullying. The result is a code of silence that on the surface seems baffling to adults. Other adults, Frey says, think of bullying as a kind of ritual that toughens up young people — a notion she vehemently disagrees with.

“For some adults it makes sense that dealing with bullying is just a part of growing up,” she said. “But it’s hard to imagine what it would be like on the job if I were afraid to go to the bathroom, or if when I went into the lunchroom people sort of moved around so I couldn’t sit down, or if they shoved me so my food went all over the place. If that were a daily event in anyone’s life, adults, too, would be miserable. They would start to show problems with self-esteem, aggression and maybe depression.”

Organizers ask that those who plan to attend the event RSVP at www.educ.washington.edu, by calling 206-543-1035 or by e-mail at edudev@u.washington.edu.