When Bullying Turns Deadly: Can It Be Stopped?

In the past four weeks, four teenagers killed themselves after being harassed by schoolmates. Technology is quickly changing how kids bully one another. Here are some ways to stop the problem

  • Jason Fulford for TIME

    At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on October 3rd, classmates remember Tyler Clementi.

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    It's similarly hard to determine the effectiveness of antibullying curriculums. One of the most widely adopted programs, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, began in Norway; its American version is based at Clemson University in South Carolina. Olweus has shown some success in getting kids to bully less, but because it was first developed in the 1980s, it predates the new technology of bullying. Many who have been trained in the Olweus program try to talk bullies down; one recommended technique is to ask, in an open-ended way, what has made bullies so angry, which can turn out to be physical and sexual abuse at home. But in the social-media age, there is often no time for such exploratory conversations.

    And yet school districts that find themselves in a media conflagration over a bullying case can have little choice but to spend money on one of the older prevention programs. In Wyoming, home to several bullying cases since the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and left to die in part because he was gay, the Natrona County School District has used part of the state's stimulus funding to buy into a program called Bullying Hurts, which was started by a Wyoming rodeo clown. The rodeo clown, Marvin Nash, 55, does a good job of holding little kids' attention during his seminars. (He runs from bulls — get it?) But while well intended, the program has no objective data proving it is effective in preventing the new kinds of bullying done instantaneously in social media. According to Marty Wood, director of student-support services for Natrona schools, the Bullying Hurts program costs $1,000 per school. But the results of a research project his district is conducting with the University of Hawaii examining how social media is changing bullying won't be available until November.

    Keeping the Peace
    So what's a better approach? The fact that more kids consider themselves both bullies and victims than think they are in either category alone provides some guidance. Social scientists have found that programs that build from within schools and work with both victims and bullies have more success than programs that ridicule bullies from the outside.

    One proven strategy is for districts to invest in a school resource officer (SRO), whose main duty is to patrol halls and connect with kids. It's a tricky job, because the SRO must own that delicate middle space between authority figure and friend. But studies of schools with such officers show that those schools have lower rates of violence than schools without them. Again, there's a chicken-and-egg question: maybe those schools were already less violent. But another good prevention strategy that SROs can facilitate is to target bystanders: the majority who neither bully nor get bullied but just watch — and maybe text their friends about it. "A lot of bystanders are afraid to step in," says Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. "It's up to adults to set an example."

    For parents, a good strategy is to show no fear — not to be bullied, in effect, by new technology. "I tell parents all the time: the machines are not the issue. The behavior is the issue," says Jennings of the Obama Administration. "Hateful behavior is never appropriate, no matter whether it happens online or in person. The idea that one is different from the other is the major problem." In short, it is incivility, wherever it occurs, that launches what can become a vicious bullying cycle.

    This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2010 issue of TIME.

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