To prevent bullying, what schools do often more important than policy

Teacher Dave Seaburg
Dave Seaburg speaks to his fourth grade class at Scandia Elementary in Scandia, MN on Friday, April 8, 2011. Seaburg holds a "morning meeting" at the start of every day and he frequently uses the time to discuss bullying and behavior expectations with his students.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Several experts, teachers and other school officials note that bullying policies are never as important as what actually happens in school. As part of a six-month MPR News investigation on bullying in Minnesota, we visited schools to learn what they are doing to address bullying.

Anecdotally, it seems every school is doing something to prevent bullying: from having students make posters to holding assemblies and even training sessions for students and adults to teach about addressing bullying.

School officials almost always say it's crucial to create a culture at school where bullying is not accepted. If you can change that culture, you've changed something that had long been considered just a normal part of growing up.

However, Nancy Riestenberg, with the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state does not track what schools are doing to prevent bullying. She said finite resources have prevented the systematic asking of the bullying question at schools.

"Nobody's asked me to be able to answer that question so specifically, because in order to answer the question well we would need to have something like the school climate surveys that are being developed, and that we hope to develop," Riestenberg said. "And so that goes back to resources."

It's also up to school leaders to contact people like Riestenberg, who is available for advice and insight. While schools do informally exchange best practices and bullying research, there's no requirement in state law to do so, the way the state's new alternative teacher licensure law will, for example.

The lack of state oversight is the result of a long-held desire to keep control of Minnesota schools local. Joel Leer, principal of Northfield High School, is happy to have that local control. He said he has the freedom to shape his school's efforts, but also said he would welcome some additional state involvement.

"There's great data on how to respond to bullying and how to develop respectful environments," Leer said. "But if we're all having to go get that on our own, it becomes very inefficient."

Playing with Spot
Kelly Miland, 19, plays with her cat Spot at her home in Northfield, Minn. Thursday, April 21, 2011. Kelly, who is autistic, was bullied several years ago.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Kelly Miland is a 19-year old Northfield High student who has autism and was bullied a lot at school.

Kelly is more comfortable answering questions from strangers she's had a chance to write out the answers. She carefully read off a piece of notebook paper, describing an incident that started with a classmate pulling her hair.

"Then she came up behind me and started punching me in the head. I was crying really hard because it hurt so bad," Miland said.

After the school called home, Kelly's mother Lynn learned from her daughter that she had been bullied for some time, especially on the bus.

"Somebody pulling your hair, swearing at you, calling you names — that's pretty blatant," Lynn Miland said. "And there were witnesses — she wasn't the only one riding that bus. Nobody did anything."

Apparently, the bus driver had told Kelly to ignore the bullying, even though it had gotten physical. With Kelly's autism, a command to "ignore it" is one she usually executes perfectly, so she never told anyone.

Serving dinner
Sisters Kelly Miland, 19, and Maggie Miland, 16, serve dinner with their mother Lynn Miland at their home in Northfield, Minn. Thursday, April 21, 2011. Kelly, who is autistic, was bullied several years ago and since then her sister and mother have worked to educate others and create awareness about the problem.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Lynn Miland contacted PACER, a center known for its advocacy for children with disabilities. Because children with disabilities are prime targets for bullying, PACER also runs a bullying hotline. Miland connected with an advocate who helped her through the process of talking to school officials.

The Milands and school officials worked out a plan that includes different busing for Kelly; they say they're pleased with the school's reaction once they alerted them to the bullying. Kelly's sister Maggie is also now involved with bullying prevention efforts at the school.

Lynn Miland said it didn't become apparent for her how crucial it was to have that advocate working with her until a few months ago, when the Miland family attended the first-ever White House summit on bullying in March.

"We were waiting in line with families who had lost their children to bullying. And what I came away with was we were lucky, because that could have been us," she said.

Bullying conference
The Miland family, including Maggie, far left, traveled to the White House for the Conference on Bullying Prevention this March.
Courtesy of Miland family

President Obama said one goal of the conference was to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless right of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.

"It's not," Obama said. "Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people, and it's not something we have to accept."

Kelly's sister, Maggie Miland, said the most important thing she learned at the White House summit was how important good bullying prevention focuses on training and not just some people. Every adult has to get regular training, from teachers to bus drivers to lunch ladies to custodians, and even parents.

Most bullying policies in Minnesota do include training requirements, but most only refer to "staff training" and don't specify which adults count as staff. Whereas New Jersey's new bullying law, for example, lists who exactly who has to be trained, and that list includes elected school board members.

Dave Seaburg puts his training to use during morning meetings he has with his fourth graders at Scandia Elementary in the Forest Lake school district.

Students listening
Fourth graders in Dave Seaburg's class at Scandia Elementary in Scandia, Minn., listen to their teacher speak during his morning meeting on Friday, April 8, 2011. Seaburg's morning meetings are a daily occurrence and they frequently are used to discuss bullying prevention.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Those meetings regularly address bullying. At a recent meeting, he asked students to write how they feel when they're called a name or put down.

"When I got called a loser, I felt like a piece of trash," said one of the kids in the class.

Seaburg is leading a lesson that focuses on how children can empower themselves to react to bullying when they see it and an adult isn't around.

"Somebody over here said that happens when you're alone a lot," Seaburg says to the class. "And if you're with a friend or group of friends, I think that scares bullies away. Sometimes, find a friend."

Seaburg's lesson plan comes from Olweus. Olweus is an internationally-recognized bullying prevention program that is based in the U.S. at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. In the 1970s, Dan Olweus's work in Norway became some of the first scientific studies of bullying. The program includes classroom curriculum, training for all adults and regular surveys.

Seaburg appreciates the program's comprehensiveness and said he loves what the school is doing for bullying. But he understands the program doesn't completely eliminate bullying.

"I don't think anybody can totally eliminate it" he said.

Researchers say any good anti-bullying program must include surveys that identify the scope of the problem. Ask the children, for instance, is there more bullying in the bathroom or playground?

Olweus also focuses on what bystanders can do, like to tell an adult, because just watching bullying happen is not acceptable. For Seaberg, the program helps him prevent for his kids the kind of bullying he endured when he was young.

"There is a lot on our plates and yes, there's the bug push with testing and collective bargaining," he said. "But I still go back to my premise that I can't do anything academically until the social needs are met."

Olweus does cost money and Forest Lake is in its sixth year using the program. At this point, officials say the biggest cost is about $4,000 to administer the annual surveys. Scandia Elementary principal Julie Greiman is a happy customer.

"I walk out on the playground a lot and I've seen kids say 'knock it off, that's not nice,'" Greiman said. "And I'll see the kid kind of stop and say 'I didn't really mean that, I'll stop.' And it's done, they have taken care of it."

Currently in Minnesota, 67 districts use Olweus, but it's not the only bullying prevention program available.

Researchers warn whatever schools use, there's no quick fix. Even the best take three to ten years to ingrain a new way of thinking about bullying.