KU researchers to help schools across the state tackle bullying

The state has tapped a group of Kansas University researchers to help Kansas schools stop bullying in their classrooms and communities.

The researchers won a contract through the Kansas Department of Education to develop an informational website, conduct training sessions with officials from school districts around the state and help build a model policy that schools can tailor to fit their needs.

A 2007 Kansas law requires schools to enact an anti-bullying policy. After six years and amendments to the law to include cyberbullying and bullying aimed at staff, individual schools in Kansas still are in different stages of implementing the policy. Smaller districts, especially, have trouble adopting intervention programs, which often can be costly.

“Some school districts have a comprehensive policy that they’re fine tuning,” said Anne Williford, an assistant professor of social welfare at KU and the lead researcher on the team. “Others have struggled to translate this particular law into a policy that works for their community.”

Williford and her team want to make it easier for schools to write and implement an effective policy. To do that, they will base their model policy and training materials on current research about bullying.

Bullying, as a topic for research, is what drew Williford into academia to begin with. While working as a school social worker in the Boulder, Colo., area, she grew concerned by instances of bullying she saw. Wanting to study the issue in more depth, she did doctoral work at the University of Denver and then became a faculty member at KU, publishing her own research about bullying.

The repercussions of bullying can last well into adulthood and extend beyond the victim. Williford said it can put stress on the entire school environment, from students to staff to families. At its worst, bullying can hamper every child’s ability to learn. Victims can grow up to develop anxiety and depression disorders and, in some rare cases, attempt or commit suicide.

For Williford, building a sound anti-bullying policy begins with understanding and communicating exactly what bullying is. Schools must “start with a clear definition of bullying, and that has to be shared with everyone at the school,” she said.

That might sound straightforward, but not every act of aggression or anger qualifies as bullying in the eyes of social scientists. Williford points to two features of behavior that mark it as bullying: The behavior is not isolated but occurs over time, and it demonstrates a difference in status between bully and victim.

“Bullies have greater social status or are just generally more powerful among their peer group,” Williford said. “Preying on weaker students helps them maintain that power.”

Along with a clear definition, Williford said schools should have consistent procedures for reporting bullying behavior and for intervention, and those procedures, like the definition of bullying, should be made known to the community.

Starting in October, the KU team will provide training workshops to school district officials that they can then pass on to others in their districts. The team will also develop a website, part of which will be open to the public, that will contain information for schools and communities about bullying and prevention.

Williford said the Kansas education department is unusual within the U.S. for its anti-bullying efforts. “You don’t see a lot of states taking this sort of comprehensive approach,” she said.