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College of Human Ecology

Asking K-State freshmen about bullying won't just help college students: survey results to help Kansas schools combat bullying effectively

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

MANHATTAN -- Bullying isn't just a problem on the grade school playground or in the high school locker room, according to two Kansas State University faculty members working to thwart the problem.

"We know that some bullying carries over into college," said Judy Lynch, director of K-State's academic assistance center.

Lynch said that bullying at college can be used to get an unpopular girl to quit a sorority, for instance, or it can stem from relationships students bring from home, like social conflicts in their schools or neighborhoods. It also could include an instructor feeling bullied by a student, or vice versa.

Lynch and Elaine Johannes, K-State assistant professor of family studies and human service, are working on a project that will survey K-State freshmen this fall about bullying in high school. Johannes and Lynch said this information could help schools across the state become more effective in preventing and dealing with bullying. It also will help K-Staters identify and deal with bullying that may be affecting their own students.

The two will survey students in Lynch's fall university experiences classes, which include nearly 500 freshmen from small towns and large cities who have diverse ethnic and academic backgrounds. Results are expected later in the semester.

"If students reveal in the class that they're being bullied, we'll have the mechanics in place to deal with it," Lynch said. "The K-State residence halls do a great job of having a system in which everyone is educated about who to go to with a problem. If students are living elsewhere, that's a lot harder."

Lynch and Johannes will use the surveys as a way to offer ideas that the Kansas Board of Education can implement to help schools meet the requirements of a new anti-bullying law. The law, which took effect in January, says that schools must have anti-bullying policies, plans and preventative measures in place.

"Many schools survey students about bullying during the school year, but most don't ask students what they know about anti-bullying programs and whether they found them effective," Johannes said.

Johannes expects the surveys to show that some tactics are ineffectual, such as having students anonymously report bullying with a note dropped in a box in the principal's office, or having an assembly that consists only of an administrator reading the anti-bullying policy word for word.

"We often find these antiquated ways of dealing with bullying that don't reflect how bullying happens, especially given the use of electronic technology," Johannes said. "We're new at understanding it."

The new law can turn bullying into a law enforcement issue, which may not get at the root of the problem, Johannes said. If two students are physically fighting, they can be turned over to police for discipline without understanding or solving why they were fighting in the first place, she said.

"Violent incidences like shootings at schools are rare and extreme, but that's what many of our policies and procedures are focused on," Johannes said.

Johannes said statistically that one in three people has been a victim of bullying, a bully or both. She said bullying reports tend to increase after students are in the fifth grade but taper off again during their junior year in high school. She said boys tend to use physical aggression to bully whereas girls will use social behaviors like spreading rumors.

To meet the definition of bullying, it has to be an act intended to cause harm -- physical, emotional or social -- and it has to be repetitive. There also has to be a power differential between the bully and the victim, whether it's physical size or something like social status. For instance, some of Johannes's students compared bullying data with data about obesity and activity levels among young people. It showed that physical attributes like being extremely heavy or extremely thin can put these students more at risk of being the target of bullies than students with more average bodies.

Bullying also can instill a sense of terror that goes beyond teasing or flirting.

"We need to have leaders understand what is bullying and what's just conflict," Johannes said. "With the new law, some schools may not be able to determine which is which."

Another outcome that Lynch and Johannes are working toward is educating not just schools but entire communities about bullying. Johannes said bullying isn't limited to the school grounds but can take place in after-school clubs, church groups and the like. With young people using technology to communicate, bullying is taking place in virtual spaces, too.

"We want to make the community aware so it can cooperate with schools," Johannes said. "It's not just a school-yard issue anymore."

Sources: Elaine Johannes, 785-532-7720, ejohanne@k-state.edu; and Judy Lynch, 785-532-6492, judylync@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, ebarcomb@k-state.edu

This article was posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2008, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.