Bullying laws are on the books in states around the nation, but the College’s Stacey Horn, PhD, professor of educational psychology in the UIC College of Education, worries that these laws, while well-intentioned, may not pinpoint the root causes of bullying.
“We have laws that tell students to be nice and improve conflict management, but we need to realize that bias is important and in all of our institutions,” Horn said. “Systemic oppression exists, and we need to look at the ways in which those sort of biases are coming out in how young people are treating each other and not say, ‘Let’s treat all types of bullying the same.’”
Horn earned a grant from the National School Climate Center to implement programming in schools aimed at reducing bias-motivated bullying by increasing school climate. Working in five Illinois middle schools over two years, Horn and a team of researchers are engaging in a process evaluation to examine what strategies work in schools and the feasibility of bringing those strategies to scale in multitudes of schools.
In 2012, the College’s Project Safe SPACES, led by Horn, worked with Prevent Illinois to distribute a bias-based bullying survey in Illinois schools. The data indicated 80 percent of students experienced some type of bias-based bullying in school. Further, the majority of students who experienced bias-based bullying were subject to bullying based on more than one type of bias. While bullying at face value is worthy of addressing, according to national data, students who experience two or more types of bias-based bullying face skyrocketing rates of depression and missed school days.
Addressing these challenges is playing out in a number of different ways in Illinois schools. At Sterling Middle School in Peoria, which has experienced high levels of bullying of students from low-income backgrounds, teachers worked on building curriculum that integrated lessons on the effects of poverty. At Unity Junior High School in Cicero, students were asked to analyze data from the biased bullying survey and create a presentation to faculty from their own perspectives on the causes of bullying. Teachers at the school have worked on building restorative discipline outcomes to address bullying situations.
This path is particularly salient, Horn says, because zero tolerance approaches often backfire. Students who report bullying in zero tolerance environments often end up facing schools suspensions themselves for engaging in retaliatory bullying.
“There is a lot of focus on how to support the victim, but a lot of approaches don’t look at if someone is doing the bullying, that kid needs help too,” Horn said. “Restorative discipline allows us to work with both sides to say, what is going on for you that you feel like you need to treat your peer in this way?”