Guidelines in Selecting Anti-Bullying Programs

The new anti-bullying law (P.L.2010, Ch.122) has been signed, which calls for the implementation of new policies, protocols and programming for schools, beginning in the 2011-12 school year. We are all aware of the recent publicity surrounding youth who have taken their lives in the past few months in New Jersey and around the country. The communications media have often included sensationalized headlines and stories that report a direct causal link between bullying and the resultant suicides of youth; however, these reports simplify the relationship and may inadvertently suggest that any bullying results in suicidal behavior. Therefore, the information below is being provided to assist you in determining strategies to avoid and those to consider in addressing these important subjects.

It is natural that in our quest to stop harmful behaviors such as bullying we are drawn to use powerful statements and evocative images to drive home the point that unkind words and actions can be quite hurtful and distressing to the recipient. However, using stories of youth who have been bullied and then taken their lives as a vehicle for these messages can be dangerous and counterproductive. Some examples of the risky use of stories and other strategies are provided below:

  • Using stories, pictures or biographies of youth who were bullied and subsequently killed themselves can inadvertently send a message to vulnerable youth that says: “When you are being bullied, suicide is a way to deal with the problem.” Youth who are struggling with suicidal thoughts interpret these stories in a different way than youth who are not at risk for suicide. The trouble is adults do not always know who these at-risk youth are.

  • Closely connecting bullying and suicide gives the message that bullying is a direct and main cause of suicide. Suicide is a complicated behavior, with multifaceted causes. To make an overly simplistic link between bullying and suicide is erroneous. This kind of incorrect messaging about the causes of suicide can inadvertently influence other vulnerable youth to imitate the behavior.

  • Also, in talking about suicide in these simplistic cause and effect ways, we miss an important opportunity to inform students about the diverse underlying causes of suicide (such as the presence of depression or other mental health problems at the time of the suicide). It prevents us from disseminating information that these problems are very treatable and can result in individuals feeling better and able to find healthy solutions to their problems.

Last, there is ample evidence that inappropriate messaging about suicide can have untoward consequences. National and international recommendations for media reports of suicide have been developed, which argue against the types of messages that seem to have emerged in some anti-bullying programs and messages. (See the document: Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media which can be accessed on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website at www.afsp.org).

Suggested Guidelines for Selecting Programs or Approaches

As you begin planning anti-bullying programs for your staff and your students, you are encouraged to choose carefully. The following points, while not an exhaustive list, are important considerations for your decision making:

  • Avoid programs that send the message that bullying is a direct and main cause of suicide

  • Avoid videos that graphically depict suicidal behavior of bullied youth. These kinds of videos can be dangerous and can lead to imitative behavior in vulnerable youth, even when they are only one component of a program or approach

  • Select programs that focus on sensitizing youth to the hurtful effects of words and behaviors and that teach empathy

  • Choose programs that help youth become more tolerant of diversity and that help them celebrate our unique differences

  • Choose programs that encourage youth to increase positive behaviors, such as practicing random acts of kindness instead of engaging in social interactions that are mean-spirited

  • Initiate programs that empower all youth through strength-based messaging that encourages them to reach out to others when they are being bullied or when they are struggling with an emotional crisis of any kind

  • Use programming that helps change the culture of silence and challenges the beliefs that asking for help is a sign of weakness, nothing or no one can help or adults will never understand

  • Connect youth with caring adults by helping them identify who they are and how to access their help

  • Choose programs or approaches that systematically aid in assessing and improving both school culture (i.e., the way things are done) and school climate (i.e., how people feel when these things are done)

  • Choose programs that take a “whole-school” approach – one that acknowledges that bullying and school climate involve adult to adult, student to adult and student to student relationships

  • Choose programs that actively and meaningfully include youth and parents in program planning, implementation and evaluation

It is hoped that this information will provide you with some useful parameters as you determine school-based bullying prevention strategies. Please send this information to anyone that would benefit from its content.

If you have any questions about the appropriateness of any programming you are considering, please do not hesitate to call your Traumatic Loss Coalition (TLC) County Coordinator or the TLC main office for assistance

Please accept my wishes for the successful implementation of proactive bullying prevention initiatives in your school.