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Are Anti-Bullying Programs Counterproductive?

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The latest headline-making research study to hit the media outlets this week suggests that having an anti-bullying program might actually make things worse. As with many of the recent bullying research turned headline news stories, the actual story is far more complicated than "anti-bullying programs don't work."

The study in question used a large-scale, national dataset to see if there were relationships between bullying rates and a number of school-based security efforts. They found there was a small, but significant, relationship between having an "anti-bullying program" and increases in bullying victimization (as a researcher side-note, the magnitude of the results the authors found was quite small and the significance they found was likely influenced in part by their large sample size; according to their results, students in a school with an anti-bullying program were 1.2 times more likely to be bullied).

The study is neither an evaluation of any particular anti-bullying program nor a meta-analysis of such programs (like this one) but rather simply asked school administrators whether they had an anti-bullying program (yes or no). This means that the "programs" that administrators responded "yes" to could be any number of things - both those that are evidence-based as well as those that we know don't work (like one-time assemblies or posters in the hallways without sustained programming) or that can have unintended consequences (like peer mediators or zero-tolerance policies). We know, in fact, that only 8% of programs implemented by schools are in fact evidence-based, and only 3.5% are both evidence based and implemented with fidelity, or as designed; when programs are not implemented as designed, their effectiveness goes down. Is it any surprise, then, that if schools generally are not using effective programs, that the researchers found no evidence of their effectiveness?

We also have to consider that given that this study relied on a single measurement (as opposed to measuring change over time), the very schools who reported having anti-bullying initiatives might very well be the ones that had the highest rates of bullying to begin with.

So are anti-bullying programs counterproductive? Possibly. But that's something we knew long before this study was ever published. Nearly every week I receive a package or an email espousing the greatest new "solution" for bullying. Most of these programs or tools have never been tested nor have any sort of stringent evidence that they work or even that they won't cause unintended consequences.

In fact, the best of ideas can have unintended consequences. Consider, for instance, substance use prevention programs of the late 1980s and early 1990s - the ones that sought to teach resilience and for kids to "Just Say No." Although these programs were adopted nearly universally, later evaluations showed that such approaches weren't effective and in some cases actually increased substance use by teenagers. Many anti-bullying programs operate on this exact same principle - "Just Say No To Bullying." Should we be surprised then, if such approaches don't work for bullying, either?

Even the programs with the most evidence will not work for every school. In fact, one program which has been evaluated in a number of contexts has shown very positive results in some studies, and little or even no results in others. Results further indicate the program might work better for white students than youth of color. Will that program work for some schools? Sure. But no program will work for all schools.

Faced with a bullying problem, schools will often reach for the latest anti-bullying program that promises to work, without considering the crucial question - "will this program work for our school?" To answer this question, schools must understand their contexts by collecting data, forming leadership teams, and building the buy-in and support from students, staff, families, and community members that will be necessary to implement the programs or practices with fidelity. This is a model that my initiative at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, RFK Project SEATBELT, is piloting in schools across the country through our partnership with the Safe School Certification Program. Our goal is to not advocate for any one program or strategy, but rather give schools the tools and autonomy to find the practices that will work best for them and recognize schools' efforts when they are successful. Only when schools engage in this systematic and thoughtful decision-making and community building can schools truly know their anti-bullying program will be effective, and not counterproductive.