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Bully-prevention options for schools too narrow and untested

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor

Released 8/10/2007

Dorotht Espelage
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology and prominent researcher of bullying in U.S. middle schools, says anti-bullying programs need more research.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In the battle against drugs in the 1980s and ‘90s, schools overwhelmingly embraced the DARE program before research came to seriously question its effectiveness.

Now schools looking for anti-bully programs risk following a similar trend, says Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois and a prominent researcher of bullying in U.S. middle schools.

The one anti-bully program recommended by a key federal government office, as well as by many school, parent and medical organizations, has no published U.S. research supporting its claims, Espelage said. That program, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, “is being presented as a model, as being effective in decreasing bullying, and it has not been rigorously evaluated with U.S. samples,” she said.

Even programs with published research supporting them, however, such as Second Step and Bully Busters, often show less-than-positive results in urban schools or with key minority populations, Espelage said. Many of these programs also do not address the growing problem of bullying online, she said.

Her concern is that many schools are spending scarce resources on programs that may not work, while little or no federal money is being spent to develop programs that do. She’s also concerned that schools may be signing up for programs billed as “one-size-fits-all” that don’t consider their specific needs, limitations or budget.

Espelage will discuss these and other concerns in two presentations Aug. 19 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, in San Francisco.

The Olweus program grew out of research first done in Norway more than two decades ago, and that is a key part of the problem, Espelage said. “Even our homogeneous schools are not as homogeneous as Norway.” With no published research data from the U.S., there is no means for evaluating its effectiveness in a very different U.S. school environment, with its diversity of race, ethnicity, language and inequalities between schools, she said.

And yet without that research data, the Olweus program is the only anti-bully program recommended by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in the U.S. Department of Justice, as one of 11 Blueprints for Violence Prevention, according to Espelage.

That recommendation, along with others often based on it, has helped produce a “snowball effect” that makes the Olweus program almost the only choice for school administrators seeking to find a program to use in their schools, she said. “The message that schools are getting is that this is the program to use. … It’s already assumed to be effective and so they don’t tend to question it,” she said.

“The biggest concern of mine is that there’s just no room for other programs that are out there that are extremely promising, that have public data, that have come out and said their program worked here and it didn’t work there, it worked with this kid and didn’t work with this kid. The situation just doesn’t really reflect good prevention science,” Espelage said.

At least 33 states have anti-bullying laws in place, with at least 10 others considering similar legislation, Espelage said. As a result, the demand for effective bully prevention programs will only increase, she said.

Rather than steering toward a single recommendation, however, the U.S. should be funding and encouraging the development of multiple options, and testing their effectiveness, Espelage said.

“We do not have a one-size-fits-all school system,” she said, and efforts to address bullying in the nation’s schools need to reflect that.