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Good News on Anti-Bullying Programs

Faithful readers of EdWeek may recall a story I wrote last month examining the research on preventing bullying. At the time, researchers told me that studies on school-based bully-prevention were rare and that they tended to yield mixed results.

Then, I came across this research review from the Campbell Collaboration. Campbell is an international group that does meta-analyses, which are essentially systematic reviews of all the existing research on a given social-science topic. The group sets fairly high methodological standards. This review, for instance, includes only experimental studies or quasi-experiments where students at a given age after the intervention were compared with students of the same age in the same school before the intervention.

When all was said and done, the Campbell reviewers found 53 reports produced between 1989 and 2003 that met their criteria. Contrary to what I heard, however, the Campbell reviewers determined that school-based bullying prevention programs, overall, may actually be fairly effective. On average, the study says, bullying decreased by 20 to 23 percent and incidences of victimization decreased by 17 to 20 percent after schools put these programs in place.

So what accounts for the mismatch between researchers' assessments and the Campbell report? One reason (I think) is that the Campbell reviewers gathered a much broader range of studies. They sought out both published and unpublished research reports, in English and other languages, from 22 different countries. And some programs that have worked repeatedly in other countries have had only limited success in the U.S. Even the granddaddy of all anti-bullying programs, Norway's Olweus Bullying-Prevention Program, has not had any dramatic success here. Not so, in Europe, where the program has proved itself over and again. I think the researchers with whom I spoke were focusing mostly on programs tried in the U.S. Also, some were narrowing the pool even further to focus on studies that met the "gold standard" of research—pure randomized experiments, in other words.

But why, I wonder, would some of these programs have better track records overseas than here? I invite your thoughts on this question.

The Campbell reviewers also call out a few of the common components of successful programs, which is always useful. Time is one such characteristic. The longer the duration, and the more intensive the program, the greater the success. The review also recommends that programs attend to what happens on the playground, through supervision or other means, and incorporate disciplinary methods to address instances of bullying. The Olweus program, for instance, provides for a range of sanctions, including having a serious talk with the alleged bully, making him or her stay close to the teacher at recess, or depriving bullies of privileges.

Calling the findings "encouraging," the reviewers conclude that "the time is ripe to mount a new long-term research strategy on the effectiveness of these programs, based on our findings." Their idea: Create and test new anti-bullying programs built from common components of successful programs. And while we're at it, they add, why not develop an international system of accrediting anti-bullying programs?

At a time when news of bullied teenagers committing suicide seems to crop up on almost a monthly basis I'd say it couldn't be more timely.

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