SIUC study explores bullying and prevention in area schools

Researchers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale are assessing perceptions of school safety, experiences of bullying and strategies for promoting safe and supportive learning environments in schools across the region, including in Alexander, Jackson, Pulaski and Union counties.

Partnering with a state regional office of education serving five Southern Illinois counties (ROE No. 30), the researchers are using a $786,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to survey students, teachers, administrators and staff.

They will use these surveys to evaluate sustainable intervention programs to prevent bullying and to create supportive school environments.

Mary Louise Cashel, associate professor of psychology, is the lead investigator in the study, working with Daryl Kroner, professor of criminology and criminal justice, and with Donna S. Boros, a regional superintendent of schools.

The study is titled "School Climate Enhancement and Bullying Prevention in Southern Illinois.”

The three-year project, which began this spring, involves teachers, administrators, staff and students from 4th through 12th grade at schools in 24 rural districts in Alexander, Jackson, Perry, Pulaski and Union counties.

According to Cashel, bullying can be defined as aggressive behavior with hurtful intent that is repeated or has strong potential to be repeated by the perpetrator(s), who has greater power, either real or perceived, than the intended victim.

The power imbalance, she said, can be as obvious as size or age difference or as subtle as social status. It is the power imbalance and the repetition of the behavior that distinguishes bullying from other forms of peer conflict.

Because the definition isn’t always clear to students and school personnel, the survey asks about specific types of experiences that typically indicate bullying.

“Words can take on so many connotations,” Cashel said.

“Sometimes students don’t realize or want to admit they’ve been bullied or are bullies but when you ask, ‘Have you experienced or engaged in this type of behavior?’ they’ll often say yes.” The surveys similarly ask teachers, administrators and staff if they have witnessed specific types of behavior that may indicate the presence of bullying.

The research team is also using the survey to gauge the current climate at the schools, which includes how students and teachers perceive the social and educational atmosphere and what they may already be doing to address bullying and intimidation.

“It’s exciting to see what each school is doing and how it is working,” Cashel said, noting that a school-byschool analysis will result in the baseline assessment for the study.

Some of the schools are using established interventions.

Other schools, though, find such programs are beyond the district’s budget or are too difficult to maintain in entirety. Cashel hopes the programs she and her team are evaluating will prove less burdensome.

This summer, the first of two groups of school administrators and school policy makers from ROE No. 30 will participate in training sessions developed by the Illinois Principals Association to address bullying.

The first teacher group will attend training sessions on classroom intervention strategies later this summer.

Cashel said her team is using a “Train the Trainers” model with teachers learning to conduct workshops developed by the National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Teachers who participate in the training will train other teachers at their schools in intervention practices and strategies for building positive classroom environments.

“Teachers understand the culture of their individual schools,” Cashel said.

“They understand the students and the parents. We are emphasizing sustainability in our program, and are involving teachers in implementing the program to further that goal.”

The project also incorporates standardized training for playground and bus monitors, staff who are on duty at times when bullying behavior typically occurs.

Boros said that these paraprofessionals and support personnel play a critical role in helping to create positive school climate, and it is encouraging that they are included in the scope of the grant.

A final component of the project is implementing an anonymous reporting system for students.

The pilot program will use a cost-effective internetbased platform for student accessibility.

“It’s a different world today,” Boros said. “I think we’ve always had bullying and bullies, but it’s magnified today through social media."

In cyberspace, the bullying is essentially anonymous. The victims can’t even respond. There is no place to escape. The internet can be a toxic environment.

“How we treat the bully and the bullied, the interventions that we use, makes all the difference in resolving individual and collective situations,” Boros said.

“How we treat each other in our buildings and classrooms makes all the difference. And then there are factors that contribute to bullying that the school cannot control, including home environment and external influences.”

That’s why she’s optimistic about the interventions and school climate training portions of the project.

“There are challenges, there are factors we can’t influence – look at the whole environment,” she said.

“The key here is to make school a place where students want to come: A safe, nurturing place. This isn’t just anti-bullying, this is also about building a positive school environment.”

The Gazette-Democrat

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