Bridging the gap between bullying prevention legislation and effective K-12 policies

Female pupil being bullied in elementary school

Story by Karla Colonnieves

Although all 50 U.S. states have mandated schools to develop bullying prevention policies, recent tragedies involving bullying serve as stark reminders that parents, educators, legislators, and the general public are still grappling to clearly define, understand, and respond to it.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Bullying affects a substantial portion of K-12 students, with estimates ranging from 20-60% of students being involved in bullying at some point during childhood or adolescence.

Anne Williford, an associate professor in CSU’s School of Social Work, hopes to bridge the gap between state legislation and on-the-ground policy development within K-12 schools through a new training initiative to help schools take action to prevent bullying.

“While anti-bullying legislation is a step in the right direction, many of these laws lack detail, scope, and resources to assist schools in developing effective anti-bullying policies and procedures,” said Williford. “We need to help local schools understand what bullying behavior and bullying prevention look like on a practical level.”

Power imbalance key to identifying bullying

Recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, Williford’s initiative was implemented statewide in Kansas via funding from the Kansas State Department of Education. She hopes to spur other school districts across the nation to use this model in responding to states’ legislative mandates.

“Bullying is a topic that may seem rather simple,” said Williford, “but in reality, it’s a complex social phenomenon that is often misunderstood.” Bullying is defined as a distinct form of aggression that occurs within a power imbalance, where the ‘bully’ picks on someone who may have difficulty defending themselves.

The characteristic power imbalance of bullying can be difficult to identify, especially when the bullying is more covert in nature (e.g., gossiping, exclusionary behaviors) compared to physical forms of bullying. As a result, many bullying behaviors go unnoticed and unaddressed.

Since the majority of bullying still takes place on school grounds (despite growing concerns about cyber acts of bullying), schools have a responsibility to address it among students, who can suffer from mental health issues and academic challenges as a result.

Helping schools manage bullying prevention programs effectively

With state mandates in place, many schools are unsure how to properly respond to bullying. “We kept in mind the realities facing public schools today,” said Williford of the new training initiative. “We created materials that can be tailored to the unique needs of each school.”

This innovative and interdisciplinary approach includes trainings specific to different types of school personnel. For example, administrators learn appropriate and effective school- and district-level policies, procedures, and practices in compliance with state-adopted legislation.

On the other hand, teachers and school mental health professionals learn practical tools to directly address bullying incidents and associated repercussions. All school personnel are trained in understanding and identifying bullying behavior.

bullying prevention expert colorado state university school of social work associate professor anne williford
“We need to help local schools understand what bullying behavior and bullying prevention look like on a practical level,” said School of Social Work Associate Professor Anne Williford.

Williford recommends schools and school districts carefully consider their policies and procedures for addressing bullying, and identify opportunities to better meet the needs of students who find themselves involved.

“Schools will be in a better position to support students involved as perpetrators, victims, and witnesses,” said Williford, “and promote more successful and positive experiences for students, teachers, administrators, and staff.” 

Anne Williford, Ph.D., M.S.S.W., serves as Ph.D. program director and associate professor in Colorado State University’s School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the etiology of bullying, aggression, and peer victimization among youth, particularly emphasizing ecological factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of these behaviors in peer, school, family, and community settings. A critical aim of her research and scholarship is to identify effective prevention and intervention strategies to mitigate aggressive behavior and promote positive behavioral health outcomes among children and adolescents.

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.