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February 4, 2018

When it comes to school safety issues, not all threats are external. Certainly, one safety issue that affects every school and school district in the country to some degree is bullying and its modern form, cyberbullying.

According to a U.S. Department of Education survey, during the 2012-13 school year, roughly one-fifth of students age 12-18 were bullied at school, and seven percent said they were cyberbullied. And even though many people think this is an issue that mostly affects older children, incidents of bullying were actually most prevalent in sixth grade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths…that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”

Bullying can include actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. All of these actions can have serious long-term academic, physical, emotional and social consequences for victims. Children are especially vulnerable to bullying based on factors such as their weight, sexual orientation, and home language, or if they have any of a variety of disabilities, disorders, or chronic illnesses.

Beyond the moral imperative to eliminate bullying, school districts have both sticks and carrots to act. Federal civil rights laws require school districts receiving federal funding to intervene when peer bullying and harassment occurs. Every state has laws, policies, or both that address bullying and require public schools to adopt anti-bullying policies. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides more federal funding for improving school safety including bullying and requires states to produce annual reports on how they are addressing bullying in schools.

 What can school administrators, principals and school resource officers do?

  • Assess the problem in each school.
  • Communicate what you are doing to change the school climate.
  • Send a clear message through words and action that stopping bullying is everyone’s business.
  • Use resources available at to inform what you do.
  • Implement sound, evidenced-based bullying prevention policies, train staff, and respond consistently.

 You also may encourage school leaders and staff to form school-based anti-bullying committees that include staff, parents, student leaders, and potentially community representatives such as health and safety professionals, elected leaders, faith leaders, and youth organization representatives. They should discuss the school climate, share information and communicate regularly to all relevant stakeholders inside and outside the building.

School board members, school superintendents and other school district administrators can play a leading role in communicating with school leaders and staff to ensure they are prepared to deal with problems that arise on their watch and prevent bullying incidents from happening. This requires the right policies, programming, and resources, but it also means smart, ongoing, internal and external communications about the issue.

Daniel Kaufman ( is a managing partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. A longer version of this piece originally appeared in the National School Boards Association’s American School Board Journal.


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