School-Based Anti-Bullying Programs – The D.A.R.E. Example

There are scores of different anti-bully programs being run in schools throughout America and hundreds more competing for a share of the market.  Which ones have the winning track record of proven results?

Before we take a look at the record, let’s take examine the  D.A.R.E. program for a parallel example.

  • The anti-drug movement was at a flash point in the 80’s, the anti-bully movement has been gaining momentum and is a hot topic now
  • There was a wide base of political and popular support for any law or program that promised a solution (DARE seemed to fit the bill). Anti-bullying legislation and school programs make identical promises.
  • Both DARE and school-based anti-bully programs are created / presented by ‘experts’
  • Media attention helped create and intensify an anti-drug mania.  Similarly, news coverage of  multi-million dollar verdicts in anti-bully law suits, and the portrait of spree-killers rampaging through schools as ‘troubled, bullied outcasts’ helps to fuel the anti-bully campaign.

The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program features ‘friendly police officers’ who warn young students about the dangers of illegal drugs, as well as tobacco and alcohol and is now taught in over 75% of US school districts.  Its preposterously simplistic philosophy (“just say no!”) and lame curriculum (scare tactics, positive mantras and student pledges) raised questions since from its inception in 1983. Today, numerous studies have provided hard statistical evidence that DARE is an abysmal failure; the program has zero impact on its graduates rate of drug usage as compared to peers. The data revealing DARE’s complete inadequacy is so overwhelming that the General Accounting Office, the Department of Education and the Surgeon General’s Office have all   labeled the program as a gargantuan flop.  (A stunningly expensive flop, too – its squandered over $200 billion!)

Back to the anti-bully programs infiltrating school systems across America and around the world.

Dr. David Smith, PhD, of the University of Ottawa, conducted a meta analysis of all available research studies regarding the effectiveness of whole-school anti-bully programs.  His results, published in the School Psychology Review (2004 issue) are  clear:

  • 14% of victim outcome reports showed a minor positive benefit
  • 86% of victim outcome reports were negligible or negative
  • 100% of self-reporting bully outcome reports demonstrated negligible / negative effects

In 2007, another meta analysis out of Texas A&M  International University reviewed school-based bully prevention and intervention programs and came to the conclusion that overall, they showed “little discernable effect.”

Vreeman and Carroll published a review of 26 school-based anti-bully programs in 2007 issue of the Achieves of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.  Only 3 could point to consistent reduction in bullying.

Dr. Wendy Craig, author, researcher, speaker and professor of psychology at the prestigious Queen’s University in Canada, reports in her study that in 15% of schools with comprehensive anti-bullying problems  actually experienced the problems get worse.

There are several anti-bully programs that testify how fantastic they are, and claim to have the documentation to prove it.  Where does this evidence come from?  Not surprisingly, from the very same companies that produce and market those programs.  This kind of back patting self-assessment is a little shady, and might be viewed with the same wariness as a child who grades his own report card or employee who writes his own performance review.

The results are in, folks.  SCHOOL ANTI-BULLY PROGRAMS DO NOT WORK. And of course, they’re more popular than ever.

Just like the avaricious politicians, hysterical crusaders and uninformed ‘feel-good’ supporters who continue to champion the DARE program in spite of its losing record, the anti-bully movement is happily marching into the same ocean.

No one is in favor of bullying, just like no one is in favor of arson, or reckless driving, or dumping toxic waste.  Supporting school anti-bully programs would seem like a no-brainer.  But the picture changes when you dig a little deeper.

First, consider private schools.  Along with a better reputation for academic achievement, there’s an air of prestige, and a considerable tuition obligation.   Such institutions are understandably reluctant to there’s a bullying problem, as that would damage their perceived status.  And if there’ s no problem, there’s no need to find a solution.

Next, let’s take a look at the public school system.  The embarrassing reality is that American students rank far below their peers in other developed countries – in benchmark areas such as science and mathematics, US children are in the bottom third.  Our nosedive to the bottom is accelerating, too.  Government teachers are incompetent of imparting the basics.  What possible hope is there that they can be trusted to successfully execute a complex, social design experiment?

Let’s say the schools outsource their anti-bully programs.  Who are the ‘experts’? There’s an incredible array to choose from, depending on a school’s needs and budget. The ranks include psychiatrists and psychologists, PhD’s, lawyers, martial artists, clergy members, former victims, activists for peace & love, and even extreme BMX stunt performers. There are individuals who’ll do a one day assembly, and organizations that specialize in comprehensive, multi-year, district wide contracts.  The men and women who create these programs are, with rare exception, good people with noble intentions.  Unfortunately, are also out of touch and completely misdirected.

How could so many people be so off target?

The biggest reason – Money.  Massive amounts of money.  Bullying is a ‘crisis’ and eliminating it has wide public support.  Administrators and politicians have an opportunity to tap into funding and raise their budgets significantly.  The anti-bully ‘gurus’ are competing for a slice of a very lucrative pie. It stands to reason that as smart business people,  they’re going to create programs to suit the requirements of the bureaucrats (who have the money) instead of for the children (who have the problems). As a result,  the programs being installed have nothing to do with empirically effective methods, and everything to do with cashing in. (Note: as a strong free market capitalist, I feel that making a profit on your goods or services is both necessary and good.  When you’re selling something of value.  But when years of evidence show that your product is defective, continuing to hawk it unscrupulous.)

There are lots of other reasons that school anti-bully programs have failed in the past and are doomed to fail in the future.

  • Educators are having a hard enough time trying to do their job.  By making them responsible for enforcing an anti-bully code, they’ll be conscripted into the role of monitor / cop / judge. This is a duty that teachers aren’t trained for, and don’t want to do.
  • When a child is caught and punished for  being cruel or aggressive, it virtually guarantees  harsh retaliation towards the target.  The bully will become resentful at the authorities who mete out the discipline, and get  furious at his (or her) victim for getting him in trouble.  Even if overt things like name-calling and physical intimidation come to a stop, the behavior will be driven underground.
  • While legislation and policy can be legitimately used to regulate conduct (like stealing, hitting or cheating), rules can not enforce thinking or attitude (affection, inclusion, compassion).
  • “Feel-Good” demonstrations are notoriously bogus.  Cheerful banners declaring “Violence Free Zone”,  bright friendship bracelets bearing messages like, “Be Nice, Not Mean”, and organized class hugs on the football field may affirm a persons altruistic intentions,  but they don’t address the causes of bullying or mitigate its effects.  But gosh, if it feels good, it must be accomplishing something, right?
  • The message doesn’t resonate with the offenders, because they are insulated in their peer group. Boys and girls who engage in bullying behaviors are frequently very popular and are much more likely to influence their classmates  to ridicule the message than they are to be changed by it.
  • “Zero Tolerance” = “Zero Thinking”. The hard-line, no nonsense zero tolerance approach to confronting a problem appeals to  demagogue politicians and  Deputy Barney Fife types, but leaves no room for the application of common sense and discretion required in the real world.  Typical (and outrageous) examples of zero tolerance include commercial airline pilots having their nail clippers confiscated from their carry on bag,  pre-teen students being suspended from school because they hugged each other, and an 11 year old who was ticketed and detained because he made an unapproved trip to the bathroom during lunch. If you want to turn relatively dull, harmless adults  into dangerous fascists, give them the clout of a “zero tolerance against bullying” policy.
  • The rule of ‘good after bad’ states that people are more likely to stay the course after they’ve made an investment.  You can see examples of this everywhere, from couples enduring unhappy relationships, or stock holders hoping the market will turn around, to Linus keeping his faith that the Great Pumpkin will appear, long after all his friends have finished trick or treating on Halloween.  If you were an administrator who’d publicly supported a program, and you’d devoted significant time, resources and funds to make it happen, how anxious would you be to admit you were wrong? Wouldn’t you be far more likely to try to find any measure of success, no matter how small? Even in the face of failure, wouldn’t you try to make adjustments instead of confess such a massive and embarrassing blunder? Is there a chance you would say things aren’t working out because there’s so much more work to be done – and the program actually needs to be expanded?

Bullying and social cruelty are very real, very serious problems.  They need to be addressed.  For all of their differences, school-based anti-bully programs have one thing in common – a jaw dropping history of failure.

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