Don’t bother me: Anti-bullying programs face questions on effectiveness

Enjelica Sangster, Staff Writer

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 20 percent of teens have reported being bullied.  Although that number doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, let’s put it into perspective: Twenty percent equates to over 780 Palm Beach Central students with most of the students being female.

To combat this problem, ad campaigns like Cartoon Network’s Stop Bullying Speak Up and many institutions, including Palm Beach Central,  are creating special programs to abate its spread.  Although these programs are informational, many begin to wonder if they are making a difference.

When looking at the statistics* from four years ago,  female students reported being bullied more than male students at a rate of  24 vs. 17 percent. But how were they being  bullied?  Eighteen percent of females reported being the focus of rumors whereas only nine percent of boys reported being a part of a rumor.  Name calling, being made fun of, or insulted?  Sixteen percent of girls versus 10 percent of boys.  Purposely excluded from activities? Seven percent of girls and three percent of boys.  Being the target of physical aggression such as being pushed, tripped or spit on?  Six percent of girls reported being on the receiving end while only four percent of boys reported the same thing.

While in some cases, bullying may be downplayed as in “kids will be kids,” this form of harassment plays a larger role in a young person’s mind than one would think. 

Neuroscientists Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Marc Waldman, co-authors of the book “Words can change your brain,” noted  how a single word has the power to influence our genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.  They went on to explain that positive words strengthen the frontal lobe and increase cognitive reasoning, while negative words increase activity in the brain’s fear center; this then releases stress producing hormones that disrupts the logic and reasoning processes in the brain. Both neuroscientists then applied their research to self image and its relation to those around society.

“By holding onto a negative self-image in your mind, this stimulates the  frontal lobe activity which changes yourself as well as the people you interact with,” Newberg and Waldman explained in their book.

In other words, having a negative self-image rather than positive will nudge towards suspicion and doubt. Now when one is bullied, their mindset is altered and negative thoughts stimulate within them. Those who are affected may be left with negative self-image, doubt, suspicion, emotional trauma, or insecurities. 

Bullying can happen regardless of gender or age, and it occurs through many forms: cyber, social, physical, and verbal. Due to the fluctuation of technology over the years, bullying continues to increase within the youth. 

Since bullying is generally associated with the youth naturally it occurs very often in school environments–usually in areas where administrator supervision lacks. After noticing the increasing trends of bullying as well as its negative effects on students, many schools have taken initiative and attempted to prevent such incidents from happening. Different schools worldwide are launching a plethora of programs to help inform and educate students on the effects of bullying.

However, the question on whether these programs are reducing bullying rates continues to linger. 

Karyn Healy, a professor of psychology, performed a study in order to find out if anti-bullying programs decreased bullying within schools. She concluded that anti-bullying programs that encouraged students to help, actually made bullying worse. Based on the study, many anti-bullying initiatives start by marginalizing the bully, and this creates a “bully versus victim” situation. Such isolation magnifies both the bully and the victim’s mentality, causing the bully to be more aggressive and the victim to feel more vulnerable.

In an effort to promote inclusivity and at the direction of the District, Central began the Bronco Safe School Ambassadors.  This program was established by the School District of Palm Beach County in 2000 to create a kinder campus by spreading positive messages and situational awareness.  According to the District’s webpage on the Safe School Ambassador program, student leaders are recruited and trained “to de-escalate conflict and reduce exclusion, cruel humor, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment on their campuses.”

Ambassadors are recruited from grades 4-12 and should “exhibit strong social and emotional competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.”  They are trained to recognize a student that is in a stressful situation, intervene, and resolve the situation themselves or find an adult to assist.

Our program is coming together this year a bit differently as we are meeting virtually,  but we are making the most of our distance learning situation.
As with everything, however, COVID has altered most plans causing Ms. Peggs, the advisor to the Bronco School Ambassadors program, to come up with new ways to make connections and create a community of friends like such as starting a pen pal program with Wellington High School.
“Our program is coming together this year a bit differently as we are meeting virtually,” noted Peggs in an email. “But we are making the most of our distance learning situation.”

Student Ambassadors usually remain anonymous for their own safety and to have the program seem more organic and less invasive.

“I do not know if these programs are truly effective,” said sophomore Lyndgee Garchelin, who is not associated with the Bronco Ambassadors. “No matter the effort you put into these programs, everyone gets bullied differently and deals with bullying in different ways.”

In addition to Healy, Seokjin Jeong–professor in criminology as well as criminal justice at UT Arlington–performed his own study on bullying initiatives. He found that students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to experience bullying compared to schools without a bullying program. 

One possible reason for this is that the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs,” said Seokjin Jeong.

The study suggested that future direction should focus on more sophisticated strategies rather than just implementation of bullying prevention programs. Bullying is a problem within a relationship, so school security measures such as guards, bag and locker searches, or metal detectors may not be as preventative as some would think.  As a result, Jeong thinks that researchers need to identify the bully-victim dynamic in order to develop the correct prevention policies.

However based on other studies, some believe that anti-bullying initiatives do work to help solve the problem at hand. 

According to The Campbell Collaboration, “The systematic review concludes that school-based anti-bullying programs are generally effective in reducing bullying and victimization. On average, bullying decreased by 20% – 23% and victimization decreased by 17% – 20%.”

Anti-bullying programs such as Lunch Friends and Buddy Club encourage students to socialize in a nice manner towards people they are unfamiliar with. For example one way they encourage students is by having them sit next to another student who is alone, or by influencing them to speak kinder to people. These programs are helping make students more aware of bullying which can help slow down its spread. 

“Anti-bullying programs are effective because they address a big problem that occurs in many schools,” said sophomore Natalie Marzella. “Since we are raising awareness, people tend to look out for it more, which then decreases the amount of bullying that takes place.”


*As reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics

Click the following links for more information: