Articles & Guides
What can we help you find?

Do schools do enough to prevent bullying? Experts weigh in and offer parents advice

Experts share the bullying prevention strategies educators are employing in school and what parents can do to feel confident that their child is safe.

Do schools do enough to prevent bullying? Experts weigh in and offer parents advice

Hallways, stairwells, outdoor corners of campus. The most common places students are bullied at school are very often hidden from the eyes of adults. But despite the secretive nature of unwanted aggressive behavior between kids and teens, bullying in schools has been in the national spotlight for decades. 

Research on the prevalence of bullying in schools ramped up in the 1990s which sparked the creation of bullying prevention legislation across the country. Today, all 50 states require schools to have anti-bullying policies.

“Schoolwide anti-bullying policies are put in place to ensure parents that their children are provided with an environment that is safe, secure and free from harassment and discrimination— and that there is accountability if and when bullying occurs in schools,” says Cameka Hazel, an assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology who specializes in the training of mental health professional in schools and holds a doctorate degree in education.

Still, in the last year, about one in five high school students reported being bullied on school property, and more than one in six reported being bullied electronically, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Which can make any parent question: Do schools do enough to prevent bullying?

Here, experts explain what bullying looks like in schools, what parents can expect from bullying prevention policies and how they can feel confident their child is safe.

What does bullying in schools look like? 

The CDC defines bullying as any unwanted aggressive behavior that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated or is likely to be repeated. 

“Any type of bullying can take a toll on kids and teens,” says Ryan Fedoroff, the vice president of learning and development for Newport Healthcare who holds a master’s degree in education. Here, she breaks down the four types of bullying that take place within the school setting in grades K-12:

  • Verbal bullying involves harsh language, name-calling, threatening, insulting behavior and mean words to tease or make someone feel uncomfortable.
  • Social or emotional bullying involves making insensitive jokes, spreading rumors, ignoring a peer’s presence or removing them from a social group.
  • Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that uses the internet, social media and online sources to tease, insult, harass and criticize others.
  • Physical bullying affects people both physically and mentally and involves using physical actions or gestures to harm someone.

“Bullied kids flat out don’t feel comfortable at school, so all the benefits of being there – from socializing to learning – are not realized,” says director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch Jeff Temple, a licensed psychologist who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. “Bullying has been linked to numerous mental, social, behavioral and physical health complaints. Perhaps most concerning, these consequences are long-lasting and can influence our health and relationships over our lifetime.”

What is an example of a bullying prevention policy at school?

Typically, a bullying prevention policy starts with training school faculty and staff on the state’s anti-bullying laws, explains Hazel. Every state has different policies, and you can find your state’s anti-bully laws detailed here, which include definitions of bullying, characteristics for bullying behaviors, and school district policy requirements. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, here’s how schools may structure a bullying prevention policy

A school mission statement 

For example, “Our school is committed to each student’s success in learning within a caring, responsive, and safe environment that is free of discrimination, violence and bullying.” 

A code of conduct 

The code of conduct applies to all, sets standards for behavior and covers a focused set of expected positive behaviors. State laws may also specify what must be included in a school’s code of conduct.

A student bill of rights 

This should be short and easy to remember so it is useful in day-to-day school life. For example, “Each student has a right to… learn in a safe place; be treated with respect; and receive help from adults.” 

Next, school administrators will designate anti-bullying policy coordinators and establish a system for reporting bullying. “Once the coordinators receive complaints from the students or parents, they must launch an investigation in the complaint and address the bullying case as stated in the state anti-bullying policies,” Hazel says.

How effective are bullying prevention policies?

In 2019, the number of students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school was down by about 6 percent since 2009 thanks to the uptick in state-mandated bullying prevention policies in schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, bullying research continues to advance along with societal norms.

While all schools should now have anti-bullying policies, some schools do not carry out school-wide assessments to see how effective their policies and strategies are, explains Hazel. This can pose a big issue because, according to the latest research, many bullying prevention programs or curricula have been proven to be ineffective. Some can even make matters worse, yet could still be in place in schools. 

Technology has also introduced the new threat of cyberbullying which a whopping 46 percent of U.S. teens ages 13-17 reported experiencing in 2022, according to a Pew Research Center survey. “Cyberbullying is the most concerning form of bullying,” says Stacey Dammann, dean of the school of behavioral sciences and education at York College of Pennsylvania. “It has become increasingly more prevalent in schools from ages 9 and up.”

Many states now include cyberbullying offenses under state laws. But logistically, schools are struggling with how to adequately address cyberbullying. “Cyberbullying can be more problematic because it is harder to detect,” Dammann says. “We typically see the impact before we see the cause.” Often, she also notes, many instances of cyberbullying occur outside the school day which also makes it hard for schools to track.

What can schools do to prevent bullying

Here, experts share the best ways schools can build upon anti-bullying policies to prevent bullying in schools:

Be proactive – no matter the school 

Step one for any school to effectively prevent bullying is to take it seriously, according to Ashley Morolla, a licensed professional counselor and program manager for CarePlus NJ’s Stop School Violence Program. 

“The reality is bullying can happen anywhere and everywhere, even if little to no issues are reported,” says Morolla. “Instead, it’s much more effective to accept that bullying is a widespread issue, assume it’s taking place in your school or district and come up with policies and frameworks to effectively address incidents when they arise.”

Adopt an evidence-based anti-bullying program in addition to a state-required policies

“Statistically, schools with anti-bullying programs typically experience a 25 percent reduction in bullying,” says Tara Fishler, a certified Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) trainer, a state-mandated workshop on bullying for all new educators in New York state. 

Both Fishler and Hazel note the effectiveness of Olweus, one of the largest and most studied anti-bullying programs used in schools. It’s a three-dimensional program that addresses bullying at the school, individual and classroom level, explains Hazel. 

“Staff members are trained to carry out program strategies, classroom lessons are delivered on anti-bullying messages and community wide activities,” Fishler says. “Students are taught how to be upstanders – how to react when they see others being bullied – and are rewarded for their social justice actions.”

Programs such as Olweus also often involve a small parent education component, which typically includes a parent workshop that explains the program, Fishler says.

Emphasize social and emotional learning lessons

Elementary schools which implement a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum usually have lowered rates of reported bullying, according to Hazel. SEL is based on helping students develop healthy relationships by learning to manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, and make responsible and caring decisions. 

Role modeling how to have respectful relationships is also paramount when it comes to setting up an anti-bullying policy to succeed. “The adults need to lead,” Temple says. “Kids will model your behavior, so all the training in the world cannot overcome an environment where adults are bullying or being mean to each other. Having a safe and healthy school environment means kids can learn, develop independence, make mistakes and express themselves.”

The effects of a child’s environment goes far beyond school property though. Parents play a vital role in helping school’s succeed. 

“A significant challenge is posed by adults when they view bullying as ‘normal’ or as a rite of passage — it’s not,” says Jackson M. Matos, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and education and the director of middle, secondary and the arts teacher licensure programs at Mount Holyoke College who holds a doctorate degree in education. “Adults can help the efforts of schools by also modeling communication in person and online, and being mindful of the words and attitudes they are teaching their young people. Everyone has a role to play in the important work of addressing bullying.”

Educate everyone, not just teachers and students

“School-wide anti-bullying policies, or bullying prevention, must be integrated into the entire school system to be most effective,” says Fedoroff. “This includes educating students, parents, administrators, teachers, and all school staff, up to and including maintenance, facilities, and meal services employees. Everyone on school grounds should be able to recognize bullying and know what to do to report it.”

Empower students to stop bullying between peers

Research shows that every student, not just those who are bullied, is affected when bullying occurs at school, including those who bully others and those who witness it. When it comes to bullying prevention, students should be trained on how they can help. 

“What tends to be most effective is when students are taught specific ways to intervene, and [they] get actual experience practicing intervening,” Fishler says. In fact, ​​studies show that if a bystander steps in, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57 percent of the time. “Often intervening with something as simple as posting a positive comment to change the course of the negative bandwagon can help.” 

Students should understand and practice how to intervene both in person and online, she adds, and this is something parents can help with at home. 

Betsy Sidebottom, a mom of twin daughters entering sixth grade this year based in Charleston, South Carolina, recalls that when her two girls were in fifth grade, they experienced “a lot of drama” that involved their peers being bullied. “As a parent, I feel it’s my job to educate my girls on how to support friends and, if necessary, go to their teachers,” she notes. “I’ve had conversations with my girls that you are not tattling, but you are helping because the teachers need to know it’s going on to help.” 

What can parents do if they are worried about bullying in their child’s school?

“Schools have a policy for everything, so I understand why parents would either not take the time to understand their school’s policy or not believe that it does anything,” Temple says. However, experts agree there are ways parents can feel more confident in their school’s bullying prevention program. 

“Parents should first ask for a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy,” advises Hazel. From there, she suggests parents request reports with the statistics of bullying prevalence and ask how the school cultivates healthy peer relations among the students outside mandated state policies. The presence of both these things indicates a school is taking effective steps to preventing bullying.

When starting a new school, observation can be just as helpful as asking questions, adds Temple. “Tour the school and take note of how people treat you and each other,” he says. “Pay attention to how they talk to cafeteria workers and secretaries because that’s how they’ll be treating your kid in a few weeks.”

And when it comes to cyberbullying? Due to its invasive nature, experts still emphasize that educators need help from all adults to prevent it. 

“It is important for parents to be aware of the signs that may indicate cyberbullying is occurring,” Dammann says. “With cyberbullying, anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, suicidal ideations, disinterest in activities, and changes in academic performance are some of the potential impacts. Depending on the age or grade level of students, some of these are more prevalent. Parents, teachers, counselors, psychologists may all need to be part of the intervention in order to mitigate the effects of cyberbullying.” 

Ultimately, the success of any school’s efforts to prevent bullying depends on more than just policy. 

“At its base, having a school-wide policy on bullying communicates to students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators that bullying is not acceptable,” says Temple. However, it must be paired with effective programming and a healthy and safe school environment in which every adult leads by example, he explains. “Kids will model your behavior, so all the training in the world cannot overcome an environment where adults are bullying or being mean to each other. Having a safe and healthy school environment means kids can learn, develop independence, make mistakes and express themselves.”