School Safety, Victimization, and Bullying
Abstract and Keywords
This article focuses on socio-ecological and whole-school approaches to coping with school violence, while highlighting best practices for selecting, developing, and monitoring interventions. We present several empirically supported programs, followed by identified characteristics of successful interventions and considerations on selecting an appropriate program for a particular school. Finally, we discuss the systematic monitoring method and approach and its utility in creating safer schools while emphasizing the contextual features and the nested environment in which schools reside. We suggest manners in which the systematic monitoring approach can be considered, advocated, and implemented by school staff members, particularly school social workers.
Schools are important developmental arenas that promote well-being, social, emotional, and cognitive growth, and social mobility. School safety is a necessary condition to ensure that students are able to take full advantage of these opportunities. Consequently, a major focus of practice for school social workers is to promote safety and prevent violence (Berkowitz, De Pedro, Couture, & Benbenishty, 2014; Cawood, 2013; De Pedro, Astor, Gilreath, Benbenishty, & Berkowitz, in press; Dupper, 2010; Gilreath, Astor, Estrada, Benbenishty, & Unger, 2014; Goodemann, Zammitt, & Hagerdorn, 2012; Johnson, Burke, & Gielen, 2012; Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015; Pitner, Marachi, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015). School social workers play an increasingly important role in shaping and implementing policy, interventions, and procedures that make schools safer (e.g., Astor, Capp, Moore, & Benbenishty, 2016; Astor, Guerra, & Van Acker, 2010; Benbenishty & Astor, 2005, 2012a, 2012b; Schiff, Pat-Horenczyk, Benbenishty, Brom, Baum, & Astor, 2010, 2012). To be effective, school social workers need to be aware of current theoretical, empirical, and practice issues surrounding school violence and be familiar with effective school violence programs. This article presents information on common types of evidence-based interventions and ways that school social workers can adopt an “entire school” approach to addressing school safety and violence through systematic monitoring. Applications of systematic monitoring are provided and its utility for system-wide school safety are discussed.
School Safety, Bullying, and Violence
Much of the public attention has focused on lethal, extreme, and tragic events of school shootings. Events such as Columbine and Sandy Hook made a lasting impression on the nation and led to major developments in legislation and policies. Bullying behaviors are a much more common form of school violence. These behaviors, defined as the repeated oppression, either psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011), have major deleterious short-term and long-term effects on students and schools. The literature suggests that in addition to physical pain and suffering, victims of bullying may also experience a range of somatic, psychological, and behavioral outcomes, such as sleep disturbances, abdominal pain, headaches, low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, loneliness, anxiety, suicidal ideation, poor academic performance, and low school attendance (e.g., Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Schneider, O’Donnell, Stueve, & Coulter, 2012). Research suggests that the long-term probability of being depressed (up to 36 years after leaving school) was much higher for children who were bullied at school than for students who were not bullied (Ttofi, Farrington, Losel, & Loeber, 2011). Depression was more prevalent among victims of bullying while in school, even after controlling for many other risk factors. Victims of cyberbullying also experience negative outcomes (Cassidy, Faucher, & Jackson, 2013). In recent years, two extreme (and highly publicized) potential outcomes of school victimization became a major source of concern—school shootings and suicides.
School social workers are aware of many more types of violence and victimization in schools that do not necessarily follow the definition of bullying nor result in an actual shooting. Behaviors such as bringing weapons to school, threatening students and staff, sexual harassment and assaults, and social exclusion on the playground and in cyberspace are only a few examples of the array of violent acts that have major negative impact on students and schools (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005). Violence prevention and promotion of school safety, therefore, need to address this wide range of challenges.
Socio-Ecological Approach to School Violence
Violence prevention and intervention programs are informed to a large extent by understanding the causes and risk and protective factors associated with violence in school. In the past, bullying and violence in schools were explained mainly by theories focusing on intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics (Hudley Britsch, Wakefield, Demorat, & Cho, 1998; Rocque, 2012). In accordance with social work approaches, several socio-ecological theories of school violence have emerged (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005; Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010; Espelage, 2014). Such theories acknowledge that each school is nested within a district or region, and each region is nested within a county, state, and country. This presents a complex picture that must be taken into consideration while aiming to create safer schools. It allows for social workers to consider what is shared by all schools in a given context and what accounts for the unique qualities of each particular school (Benbenishty & Astor, 2012a; Benbenishty & Astor, 2012b). Moreover, for each school, a nuanced approach is advocated to address the variations within the school between different groups of students, different locations, and different periods of the day. These theories help school social workers to understand not only how certain student characteristics are associated with violence and victimization in school, but also how peer-group dynamics influence school safety and how the surrounding neighborhood may affect levels of violence in the school. Moreover, there is a growing attention to how school organization and decision-making may impact school safety (e.g., Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999). For instance, in some schools strong leadership can help the school cope effectively with violence under very difficult external circumstances of neighborhood poverty, crime, and oppression (Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009), whereas in other schools “readiness for change” and a willingness to learn and progress are very low (Berkowitz., Bowen, Benbenishty, & Powers, 2013; Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013).
An ecological perspective is especially relevant to social workers planning prevention efforts, as their work can be directed toward multiple constituents and toward structural and environmental changes to make their schools safer. For instance, social workers may help identify times and places in school that are more vulnerable to violence and intervene in them. They may also utilize their unique position, professional knowledge, and skills to integrate the ecological perspective into staff members’ thinking and approaches to violence. Benbenishty and Astor (2012b) show how opening one more gate at the end of the school day or placing a staff member in the school bus station at a key point in time can prevent violence. The following sections present evidence-based programs that social workers may harness to support their school safety and violence prevention work.
Empirically Supported Prevention and Intervention Programs
We begin this section by presenting examples of prevention and intervention programs available to schools and school social workers. These programs do not represent an exhaustive list of all the available programs; however, they are some of the most commonly used violence preventions/interventions in schools. Each of these programs has undergone extensive evaluation procedures that support their effectiveness in addressing school violence.
Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) Program
Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) was designed to promote emotional and social competence and reduce aggression and other behavior problems in grades K–5. This program focuses on four domains: (1) pro-social behavior and friendship skills, (2) emotional understanding and self-control, (3) communication and conflict resolution, and (4) problem-solving skills (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2011). PATHS provides teachers and counselors with training, lesson modules, and ongoing consultation and support. Additionally, parents receive information and activities to complete with their children.
PATHS has been field-tested and researched in both mainstream and special needs classes, such as those for students who are hearing impaired, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, mildly intellectually delayed, and gifted (see Riggs, Greenberg, Kusché, & Pentz, 2006). PATHS is based on five conceptual models (Greenberg, Kusché, & Mihalic, 1998). First, the affective-behavioral-cognitive-dynamic (ABCD) model of development promotes developmentally appropriate skills. The second is an eco-behavioral system orientation focused on helping the teacher use these skills to build a healthy classroom atmosphere. The third involves neurobiology and brain organization for cognitive development. The fourth is psychodynamic education derived from developmental psychodynamic theory. The fifth includes psychological issues related to emotional awareness or emotional intelligence. These conceptual models come together in this curriculum to provide a comprehensive and developmentally based program that addresses students’ cognitive processes, emotions, and behaviors.
PATHS has been found to be a model or effective program by at least six groups reviewing violence prevention programs nationwide. Results showed reductions in aggression, conduct disorder, and violent solutions to social problems, and increases in self-control, vocabulary for emotions, cognitive skills, frustration tolerance, and conflict-resolution strategies (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2003). The findings are consistent across teacher reports, self-reports, and child assessments and interviews. PATHS remains among the highest-rated social-emotional learning programs, is nationally and internationally recognized for its strong evidence base, theoretical design, and clarity of implementation, and has been recognized for its effectiveness by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP)
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) is a comprehensive, school-wide multicomponent bullying reduction and prevention program designed for grades 1–9. This evidence-based program (EBP) has been translated into more than 12 languages and successfully implemented in more than 15 countries. OBPP is based on a systematic restructuring of the school environment that redirects bullying behavior and rewards prosocial behavior. Its conceptual framework is informed by research on the development and modifications of aggressive behavior and positive child-rearing dimensions (Olweus & Limber, 2010a). OBPP’s goal is to create a school environment characterized by adults who are engaged and caring, set firm limits for unacceptable behavior, consistently respond without reward and with negative consequences for violence, and act as authorities and positive role models (Limber, 2012). Much of OBPP’s success can be attributed to it being an integral part of the school environment. Indeed, students and adults participate in most of the program’s universal components. School staff and parents are expected to become aware of the extent of the bullying problem through assessments, to gain an understanding of the significance and harmful effects of bullying, and to take an active role in enforcing rules against bullying behavior (Olweus & Limber, 2010a). Significant reductions in bully/victim reports have been demonstrated across many cultures. General antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism, fighting, theft, and truancy have been reduced in schools implementing the program. Improvements have also been found in student-reported order and discipline, social relationships, and attitudes toward school and schoolwork (Limber, 2012; Olweus & Limber, 2010a).
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a comprehensive, proactive whole-school intervention designed to create positive school environments by reducing student problem behavior and promoting student success. It is guided by principles from applied behavioral analysis, which consists of teaching, modeling, and reinforcing prosocial behaviors (Horner et al., 2009). PBIS has been implemented in elementary, middle, and high schools and has three levels of implementation: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary level implementation involves teaching, modeling, and reinforcing specific behavioral expectations for all students (e.g., use of a school-wide token system to reinforce prosocial behaviors). Secondary level implementation targets specific school settings (e.g., cafeteria) and is used for students who may be at-risk for problem behaviors even after primary level implementation. Tertiary level implementation consists of highly individualized interventions and is used for students who display chronic problem behaviors (Pugh & Chitiyo, 2012). An important aspect of PBIS is its focus on the ongoing collection and use of data for monitoring, problem solving, and decision-making regarding novel behavioral challenges that arise within schools (Solomon, Tobin, & Schutte, 2015). Several studies have shown that PBIS is effective at reducing problem behaviors in school (Bradshaw et al., 2012; Horner, Sugai, & Anderson, 2010; Horner et al., 2009; Molly, Moore, Trail, Van Epps, & Hopfer, 2013; Szu-Yin, 2015).
Characteristics of Successful Interventions
Pitner, Astor, and Benbenishty (2015) analyzed evidence-based violence prevention/intervention programs and argue that each of these aforementioned exemplar programs embodies key characteristics that are the foundation of successful violence interventions. Specifically, successful school-wide interventions: (1) are comprehensive, intensive, and ecological; (2) raise the awareness, responsibility, and buy-in of students, teachers, and parents regarding the types of violence in their schools (e.g., sexual harassment, fighting, and weapons use); (3) create clear guidelines and rules for all members of the school community; (4) target the various social systems in the school and clearly communicate to the entire school community what procedures should be followed before, during, and after violent events; (5) focus on getting school staff members, students, and parents involved in the program; (6) often fit easily into the normal flow and mission of the school setting; (7) use faculty, staff members, and parents in the school setting to plan, implement, and sustain the program; (8) increase monitoring and supervision in nonclassroom areas, and (9) include ongoing monitoring, which provides information that schools can use to tailor a program to their specific needs and increase its chance of success (Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015). Given these characteristics, and given the multitude of extant evidence-based school violence interventions, how do school social workers determine the best match between an evidence-based program and their school?
How to Select the Right Program for a Specific School
Social workers are encouraged to look for programs that show strong empirical evidence of effectiveness. This is justified because model programs that have been demonstrated to be effective in large-scale research studies have a better chance for success at a school (Marachi, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2013). It is important, however, to consider whether a violence prevention program that was effective elsewhere will have the same effectiveness in a particular school (Shlonsky & Benbenishty, 2014). Social workers need to assess whether the candidate program matches the needs, values, and resources of the community and school. Evidence-based violence prevention programs are often introduced to schools through “top-down” approaches, with little or no attention focused on variations in local school contexts (Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015). This “one-size-fits-all” approach has many limitations. Each school is unique, operating within its social-organizational characteristics and school climate, and may have different kinds of problems, which necessitate different types of approaches. Thus, instituting a singular “antiviolence” program across schools with different needs is unlikely to address effectively the specific problems that might exist in each school. School social workers may make an important contribution in assessing their school problems, values, needs, and available resources in order to assess whether a particular program is the best match for their school context. Furthermore, although developers of EBPs attempt to ensure the fidelity of implementation, there is growing evidence to suggest that most EBPs need to undergo adjustments in order to fit into a particular context (Sundell, Ferrer-Wreder, & Fraser, 2014). Social workers who are knowledgeable about a school’s unique characteristics may be best positioned to suggest adjustments to the program that may keep its effective components, while improving the fit to their school (Franklin & Kelly, 2009).
One of the important implications of the need to match existing EBPs with the unique school context is that social workers should have a detailed and accurate assessment of their own school to identify the specific violence problems facing their school. Some schools may have serious problems of social exclusion, some may face discrimination-based violence and intragroup conflicts, while some schools may be facing major challenges with weapons brought to school by gang members. Social workers need to assess their school, identify the major challenges in this particular school, and identify issues the school community views as priorities. This assessment becomes the basis for finding EBPs that are the best match for the school and for making necessary adjustments. Furthermore, EBPs that may have shown great effectiveness in other contexts may have limited impact in other situations. Therefore, social workers who have advocated for a particular program and were involved in its modification and implementation, should continue to monitor the extent to which the program is bringing the desired effects.
After conducting a thorough assessment of their school and evaluating the literature on EBPs, social workers attempting to ameliorate problems with school violence may conclude that existing EBPs would not be a good match for a particular school. In such cases, social workers should assess whether their school or school district has developed “grassroots” practices and programs that seem promising, but do not have strong empirical evidence to support their effectiveness. Social workers may decide to implement such locally developed programs that have the potential to help prevent violence and promote school safety.
Given the tenuous evidence for the effectiveness of such grassroots programs, it is essential to document these programs and monitor their effectiveness. Social workers need to develop feasible procedures to conduct ongoing monitoring of the programs they implement (both EBPs and local programs) so that they can assess their effectiveness and adjust them to fit the ever-changing circumstances in their school. The following sections present systematic monitoring as way to assess school communities and response.
Systematic Monitoring as a Method and a Process
An important element of successful violence prevention programs is the use of data in an ongoing and interactive manner (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005; Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009; Astor, Rosemond, Pitner, & Marachi, 2006; Benbenishty & Astor, 2007; Benbenishty & Astor, 2012a; Benbenishty, Astor, & Estrada, 2008). Hence, ongoing data gathering, analysis, and interpretation are essential components of the intervention process. Data are used to create awareness, mobilize different school constituents, assess the extent of the problem, plan interventions, monitor program implementation, and evaluate effectiveness. School-specific data is provided continually to different school groups in each step of the intervention process. This process allows each school to identify its specific needs, limitations, strengths, resources, and outcomes so that members of the school community can choose and debate which programs fit their needs best and whether they are achieving their goals.
Systematic monitoring is an ongoing process of collecting and using data to shape, fit, match, and evaluate an intervention. This helps to create a “whole-school response” that stems from a belief that the efforts to “fit” a program to a school involves grassroots participation, that students and teachers in the school need to be empowered to deal with the problem, that democracy is at the core of a good violence intervention, and that schools should demonstrate a proactive vision surrounding the violence problem in their school (Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015). Because of this, implementation of interventions should be slightly different for each school site because it is assumed that the social dynamics of each school site are unique.
The value of systematic monitoring comes from description of the frequency of certain behaviors at a specific point in time and over time, and from comparison (within and between settings), which enhances the value of information by putting it into a context. In order to adopt a program, it is imperative to ascertain which types of violence are more problematic than others, which grade levels may experience more victimization, and how violence levels in a specific school compare over time and for different ethnic, age, and gender groups. These concerns sound like common sense, yet few schools collect such systemic information. Currently, many U.S. schools purchase expensive violence prevention programs without data about the extent of the problem in their schools. This creates a chain of difficulties through implementation and evaluation. If the precise nature of the problem was never established, then it is difficult to know whether the program ever worked.
As described above, monitoring processes on a school level can make a significant contribution to the school by providing ongoing feedback about issues of safety and violence, and whether and how programs implemented in the school make a difference. To illustrate, social workers can work with students to map their school and identify particular places and times that are more dangerous to certain groups of students (Pitner, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2015). The outcomes of this mapping process can be used to involve students and staff members in discussing their experiences with these places, understanding the underlying reasons for the various “hot spots,” and engaging the school community in finding ways to change the school.
Monitoring systems could be also helpful at higher levels, such as districts, regions, and states. A multilevel monitoring system has many advantages. A district- or national-level monitoring system provides resources needed to connect individual schools to a larger system. Schools may receive the instruments, expertise, and resources developed for all the schools in the state, thus facilitating the implementation for each of the individual schools. Furthermore, schools that are part of a multi-level monitoring system have the advantage of being able to compare themselves to other schools. This is an important perspective as schools are able to assess whether the progress they are making is similar to other schools. Even more importantly, schools may be able to learn from the successes and experiences of other schools being monitored by the same system.
From the perspectives of knowledge generation and policymaking, multilevel monitoring is a very powerful tool. Such systems provide opportunities to identify schools and student groups that are doing better or worse than others, examine potential explanations for these variations, and develop more nuanced practices and policies to address these differences. As databases are built over time, these systems can also support research that takes advantage of the resulting large-scale and longitudinal data. Analyses of this rich information can help answer questions about trends in levels of different types of violence, differential trajectories of progress made by different groups, factors that can explain better outcomes in some schools, and many more questions that are relevant to scientific knowledge and policymaking.
Applications of Systematic Monitoring
Systematic Monitoring to Address Bullying, School Safety, Weapon Use, and Substance Use
Systematic monitoring and its multiple ecological layers of data collection and interpretation have been described in detail in previous research (see Benbenishty & Astor, 2012b). The monitoring system has been used at the local level, regional district level, and state and national levels to address multiple topics (Astor, 2013a; Astor, 2013b; Astor & Benbenishty, 2014; Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014; Berkowitz, De Pedro, Couture, & Benbenishty, 2014; Cederbaum et al., 2013; Cederbaum, Malchi, Esqueda, Benbenishty Atuel, & Astor, 2014; De Pedro, Esqueda, Cederbaum, & Astor, 2014; Esqueda, Cederbaum, Malchi, Pineda, Benbenishty, & Astor, 2014; Gilreath, Astor, Cederbaum, Atuel, & Benbenishty, 2013; Gilreath, Cederbaum, et al., 2013; Gilreath, Estrada, Pineda, Benbenishty, & Astor, 2014; Gilreath, Astor, Estrada, Benbenishty, & Unger, 2014). For example, in the U.S., 145 schools used the monitoring data and identified areas to address, including bullying, school safety, weapon use, crisis intervention, and substance use (Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014). Student data on these issues were given to each principal, vice principal, and members of the teaching faculty for their school, as well as comparisons with the district, region, and state. Based on each school’s specific needs, the school districts implemented various EBPs that met the needs of their school and community. These included the Olweus bullying program, Second Step (Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014), Student-to-Student, Safe School Ambassadors, and Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014). Some sites decided to try community-wide grassroots interventions. Many successful school sites exchanged information, visited each other’s schools, and shared best practices. Schools were also able to link with community, military, and university resources to build capacity and use collaboration as a way to sustain programs.
Systematic Monitoring to Address Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors
Given the prevalence of suicidal thought and behaviors among youth, systematic monitoring has direct applications to these issues. For example, a monitoring system was used in a state-wide California research project (Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014; Benbenishty, 2014; Benbenishty & Astor, 2012a; Benbenishty & Astor, 2012b; Gilreath, Estrada, Pineda, Benbenishty, & Astor, 2014; Gilreath et al., 2015) where secondary schools received estimates of how many youth in each of their grade levels had depressive symptoms and serious suicidal ideation. Providing schools with their own rate, compared with the rate in their district and in the state, helped educators understand the extent of the problem by comparing their school site with the school district or the state. In a recent effort to use monitoring to support schools, district administrators were informed that 19 percent of students in their region reported serious suicidal ideation. This data surprised administrators and teachers, but also let them know that students in their schools were similar to overall regional and state averages. Further, when the administrators looked at the subgroups of students (e.g., those who had parents or siblings serving in the military during the past 13 years), the percent of adolescents that displayed suicidal ideation was between 25 to 27 percent, due mainly to multiple parental and sibling deployments to war zones (Astor, Benbenishty, Wong, & Jacobson, 2014; Benbenishty, 2014; Cederbaum et al., 2013).
Currently, there are many concerns about the ill-effects of accountability systems that are used to punish rather than support schools, leading to growing reluctance to engage in monitoring. In this real-life example, the detailed information on the numbers of students reporting suicidal ideation and depressive thoughts and the identity of the more vulnerable groups was used in ways that could support the schools. An examination of resources at the regional level suggested a lack of capacity and training in the schools and communities to deal with such a problem. Utilizing a process initiated by the presentation of the data received from the monitoring system, school district administrators, county services, and parent groups were able to organize coalitions, share resources, create joint advocacy plans, and link with resources from the community, the military, veteran groups, and nongovernmental organizations to provide additional resources. This level of awareness helped galvanize leadership support to find programs, resources, and partners to connect with their schools.
Implications for Schools and School Social Workers
School social workers can play an important role in school violence interventions at the local, state, and national levels. School social workers are encouraged to adopt an approach that sees the entire school setting as the focus of violence prevention strategies. Social workers should see themselves as bringing together all school constituents to work together to prevent violence. These efforts should become an integral part of the school mission, not to be separated from the school’s effort to help students develop socially, morally, and academically. Furthermore, school violence prevention and intervention can be integrated into the everyday practices of the school, and not limited to short-term intervention programs.
School data should also serve as the basis for interventions and their subsequent evaluations. Systematic monitoring is an important method that has strong evidence and support. Schools and school social workers may create committees, consisting of staff members, students, parents, and representatives from community organizations that will use school data to help generate grassroots interventions and adapt existing programs that have been found to be effective. These school data resources can range from school surveys to focus groups with students, teachers, school staff, and administrators. Information obtained through systematic monitoring can help ensure school social workers are fostering an increase in dialogue between students, teachers, and school staff members on issues of school violence and are supporting solutions that are grounded in data and local needs.
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