Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2003

Effective materials for students, school personnel, and parents are critical to combating bullying and sexual harassment in schools. Creating such tools is a core interest of senior research scientist Nan Stein, a former middle school teacher whose work ranges from anti-bullying and harassment curricula to new work on the dangers that zero tolerance laws pose to children's civil rights. The sale of more than 75,000 copies of Stein's three curricula attests to the need for such classroom tools.

In an age of data-driven decisions, however, school officials want more than teacher recommendations. They need documented results and outcomes. For widespread acceptance, programs and materials must demonstrate effectiveness through objective studies. One of Stein's curricula, Bullyproof: A Teacher's Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Fourth and Fifth Grade Students, was recently evaluated in a three-year project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

SafePlace, a sexual assault/domestic violence center in Austin, Texas, chose Stein's Bullyproof as a core component of the Expect Respect Project. SafePlace, the University of Texas (UT), and the Austin public schools implemented a violence prevention program pairing six control schools with six where Bullyproof was used in an intervention program with fifth graders and their teachers. In peer-reviewed journals out this fall, CDC and UT evaluators report that after the intervention, more students were able to recognize bullying and sexual harassment, an important step in stopping these behaviors. After the evaluation, SafePlace expanded bullying prevention efforts to public meetings and Expect Respect/Bullyproof was selected in 2002 as a Promising Practice by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

"One way to dismantle bullying and harassment is to focus on courage," said Stein, author of Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools. "By that I mean the courage of the bystanders and observers, not necessarily the courage of the person being picked on. My curricula are tied to works of literature, such as Bridge to Terabithia and Number the Stars, that have courage as a theme, but I use a more expansive definition of courage including mundane, daily acts of courage. These smaller, building blocks of courage might include several kids walking a younger child away from a schoolyard bully. By focusing on these small acts of courage, we can build an infrastructure that can help dismantle harassment."

Naming the Problem Early

Research on peer victimization shows that the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia share a common problem: some 18 percent of elementary students report being bullied. Bullying increases throughout elementary school, peaking in middle school, then declining in high school, although the damage is not over then. Long-term consequences include a link to teenage sexual harassment and adult domestic violence. Sexual harassment may involve a much larger segment of students. A 2001 American Association of University Women study found that 80 percent of girls and boys grades 8 to 11 experienced sexual harassment in their schools. Harassment and bullying are well documented in students' own words. In a recent talk, Stein shared comments by eighth grade Massachusetts students in a school using Stein's Flirting or Hurting? curriculum. "It's amazing that this stuff goes on at our school," one boy wrote. "I think that part of the problem is that some kids don't know what sexual harassment is, so they don't know that they are doing it."

Stein finds these journal entries encouraging because they point out the impact that age-appropriate, deliberate, and teacher-led conversations and curricula can have in students' lives. "By creating a common classroom vocabulary and offering nonpunitive and nonlitigious ways to probe controversial and troubling subjects, educators and their students can confront and reduce sexual harassment and gendered violence in the schools," Stein said.

Teachers and administrators need to recognize that sexual harassment is a common feature in the school lives of both boys and girls. "The next step," Stein said, "is for the adult to name it and take it on publicly in the classroom and throughout the school community."  According to Stein, school-wide efforts that directly address sexual harassment, bullying, and other forms of gender violence can help prevent these behaviors. Schools can begin in class with lessons about teasing and bullying, take a firm stand against hazing, and offer effective counseling, perhaps billed as lunchtime discussion groups. Prevention programs can reduce the need for punishments, Stein believes.

A male student wrote that the Flirting or Hurting? program really had an impact. "X has stopped goosing and touching girls. I never thought I'd see the day—he no longer pinches girls and rubs up against them in the hall."

Safety in Schools—in Law and in Fact

A new article by Stein, "Bullying or Sexual Harassment? The Missing Discourse of Rights in an Era of Zero Tolerance" published this fall in the University of Arizona Law Review, examines problems with local interpretations of current state laws. A growing body of anti-bullying laws passed after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings have pushed many schools to take a zero tolerance stand, imposing harsh, mandatory punishments for vaguely defined behaviors.

After a 1999 Supreme Court decision established that schools are legally and financially responsible if they allow known sexual harassment to continue, schools have paid closer attention to some behaviors. Laws meant to prevent grenade launchers from entering schools, however, have been used to suspend a eight-year-old boy for pointing a chicken finger at his teacher and saying "pow, pow." A female assistant principal, reacting to a previous year's mooning incident, forced the girls to lift their skirts to prove they were wearing underwear to be allowed entry into a school dance. These local interpretations of laws point to common violations of students' civil rights.

Zero Tolerance = Zero Civil Rights

"Zero tolerance laws have eviscerated the civil rights of students," Stein said. "There is no due process if it's one strike and you are suspended. It's a gross injustice to have your educational career derailed by a questionable action like showing your midriff or skateboarding. There is no due process if circumstances are ignored and teachers are denied teachable moments."

According to Stein, anti-bullying laws are delivering unintended consequences on several levels. First, they degender the conversation by moving it away from sexual harassment. Second, they shift the discussion away from civil rights, which schools must protect, to a focus on individual misbehavior.

Stein says the post-Columbine reaction, which targeted physical violence and weapons in school, also misses the key fact that extreme violence is the least common threat to school safety. Students are much more likely to face threats to their psychological and social safety, such as losing the right to learn, because of harassment.

Zero tolerance policies amplify the power of anti-bullying laws, Stein says. Pressure for legal reform is coming from diverse sources, such as juvenile rights lawyers, parents, community activists, and researchers. More focus should go to changing behaviors early through school-based programs, counseling, and civil rights and anti-harassment legislation, Stein said. "The ideology of these anti-bullying laws is to punish and exclude the bully. The result is not reform, only demonization."

Journey into Gendered Violations: A College Course

When students register for the Wellesley College course Gendered
Violations, they confront a troubled world. A joint anthropology/ women's studies course taught by the Wellesley Centers for Women's Nan Stein and Wellesley College professor of anthropology Sally Engle Merry, the course combines an anthropological approach to gender with an analysis of interventions—from policing to therapy—aimed at reducing gendered violations of women. These violations include the hard realities of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.  "We look at the discourse about creating women's rights as human rights, at social science research and policy making about violence against women, and the construction of masculinity and femininity," says Stein.

As an interdisciplinary effort, the course combines the tools of legal anthropology, which is Merry's field, and research and action efforts in Stein's realm of education.  "Our interests are parallel in their focus on efforts at surveillance and control. The problem I've identified around sexual harassment in schools and Sally identified in efforts to reduce domestic violence is how they count on surveillance and control of the perpetrator. We want to know what happens when you go down that road of surveillance and control to reform somebody."

A day-long field trip takes the students to a courtroom where they talk to a judge about restraining orders and then on to visits with the governor's advisor on domestic violence, the statewide Coalition on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, and a domesticviolence shelter. This brush with harsh reality is new to some students, but not to others.

"In our class, we have students who disclose that they have witnessed domestic violence or threats or have experienced teen dating violence themselves," Stein says, "That's always a very powerful element."

Bringing Change to Schools: Teaching Guides

These and other publications by Nan Stein may be ordered from the
WCW Publications Office at 781-283-2510 or via the online store.