Nancy Willard is the Director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, an organization that develops strategies to assist schools in fostering a more positive school climate that results in a reduction of bullying. She approaches bullying from a digital age perspective and wrote the first book on cyberbullying, Cyberbullying & Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats and Distress. Her newly published books include Engage Students to Embrace Civility (a book for school leaders) and Be Positively Powerful: An Empowerment Plan for Teens who are Bullied or Harassed. One of the field’s most knowledgeable experts, Willard shares her first-hand perspective on the effects of bullying and cyberbullying on students and advocates for improving the well-being and safety of students.
Image courtesy Embrace Civility
Interview of October 31, 2018
Alexandra Wang: What exactly is “cyberbullying?”
Nancy Willard: At this point in time, there are far too many definitions crowding the field. My current preference is to shift away from using the term “cyberbullying,” and focus on hurtful behavior using digital technology.
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Alexandra Wang: Under what circumstances does this hurtful behavior usually happen?
Nancy Willard: This behavior generally occurs between young people who know each other, either using private communications of messaging or text messaging, or posting on social networking sites such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Image courtesy The Next Web
Alexandra Wang: Which gender or age group engages in this online behavior?
Nancy Willard: All bullying behavior appears to increase as young people enter puberty. It decreases in the later high school years. While both boys and girls engage in such hurtful behavior, girls are most often the target.
Image courtesy No Bullying
Alexandra Wang: Which groups of girls and boys are more likely to be the focus of this hurtful behavior?
Nancy Willard: I do not think there is good research on this specifically related to digital technology. However, based on face-to-face bullying data, the primary targets of bullying include students with a minority sexual orientation or identity, students with a distinctive physical appearance, including obesity, race or national origin, and religion. But, of all groups, students with disabilities is the group that is most likely to be targeted.
Image courtesy Columbia Missouri
Alexandra Wang: Is there a profile of those who engage in hurtful behavior online?
Nancy Willard: There are two profiles of students who engage in bullying in general. The more commonly understood profile is that of a student with challenges who is also aggressive.
However, the primary source of bullying behavior is actually socially skilled, “popular” students who are being hurtful in order to achieve social dominance. These students target both those who are considered “different” or “other,” as well as those who are perceived to be rivals.
Alexandra Wang: Which of these two profiles fit those who use digital technology for bullying?
Nancy Willard: My sense of what is happening in the digital world, which is somewhat supported by research, but also by observation, is that a lot of this behavior involves the targeting of a rival. These incidents then become what students call “drama.” The one who was originally targeted may retaliate, and supporters on both sides jump in.
Alexandra Wang: Is the Dignity For All Students Act effective in addressing this behavior?
Nancy Willard: The Dignity Act appears to have not achieved effectiveness in the reduction of bullying. The New York Youth Risk Behavior Survey, as well as other reports on the number of bullying incidents that have occurred in schools, clearly shows an increase in bullying since the Dignity Act was implemented. The rate at which students report being bullied on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey has also not declined since they started asking the bullying question in 2009, but in New York there appears to be a significant increase.
Alexandra Wang: Is this the fault of educators?
Nancy Willard: I want to be really clear. My statements that follow are not meant as blame of educators. Educators do not want to see bullying occur. They want to effectively respond. They want their schools to be safe and welcoming for all students.
There are a lot of factors that are influencing bullying behavior that are totally outside of the control of educators–such as social values and what is going on in politics. Educators are also totally overwhelmed by excessive testing demands and lack of sufficient funding. We all need to be grateful that educators are remaining in their work, given the intense challenges they face on a daily basis.
As noted above, what educators have been told about bullying behavior is not fully accurate. As most bullying behavior is an effort by socially skilled students to achieve dominance, risk prevention approaches will not reduce this kind of behavior.
Further, as will be outlined, school leaders are responding to bullying situations as they have been directed to under state statutes. The problem is that what they have been directed to do will not be effective. This is not the fault of school leaders. Legislators also do not want to see bullying occur. The underlying problem is a mistaken belief that an authoritarian, rules and punishment, approach is an effective way to control this kind of hurtful behavior.
Alexandra Wang: Why do you think the Dignity Act has not achieved effectiveness?
Nancy Willard: There are three reasons. First, the approach advocated in the Dignity Act, along with other state statutes, promotes a rules and punishment, authoritarian approach to bullying. The adult authority announces the rules and imposes sanctions on those who violate the rules. This is essentially engaging in dominance behavior.
Research documents that schools that function in an authoritarian manner have higher levels of bullying. So the manner in which New York, and every other state, is trying to reduce bullying is is by requiring use of an authoritarian approach that is known to increase bullying. The authoritarian approach models bullying behavior to students. The principal announces, “These are our expectations. If you do not abide by these expectations, I will punish and exclude you.” Students being hurtful to achieve dominance, state, “These are the expectations for those who are to be considered “cool.” Anyone who fails to meet those expectations is considered “not cool,” and will be denigrated and excluded.”
The second reason the Dignity Act has not achieve expectations is that the focus of the statute is on really serious incidents. Because the consequence is a disciplinary action, the behavior that would be considered to warrant a disciplinary action, such as a suspension, must be sufficiently egregious.
A significant amount of bullying and harassment is persistent or pervasive hurtful acts that, when considered based on the incidents themselves, are more minor in nature. It is the cumulative effect of these incidents that is causing the harm. If students who are being persistently or pervasively bullied at this more minor level ever do report to the principal, (which they most often do not), the principal most likely will look at the definition of the Dignity Act, and decide that this reported incident was not serious enough to warrant a suspension. The principal, most often, will tell the bullied student there is nothing that can be done. As a result, students stop reporting, because nothing is ever done.
The third reason is the requirement of public reports of the number of bullying incidents. No school wants to have a high number of reports, because this is a “black mark.” Determining whether a reported incident meets the definition of “bullying” is solely a decision made by a principal, who wants to avoid “black marks.” So the principal decide that the reported incident does not meet the stringent statutory definition, and tells the bullied student that there is nothing that will be done. One year in NYC, 71% of NYC schools reported zero bullying incidents. This is absolute nonsense.
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Alexandra Wang: What does the research say on the effectiveness of principals in responding to reports of bullying?
Nancy Willard: Many studies have documented that most students do not report because they do not think this will help or that reporting will make things worse..
Two research studies, (one of which was mine and has not yet been published in an academic format, the other has been presented in a book, Youth Voice Project), found that only about a third of secondary students who were bullied and distressed reported this to the principal. If they did report, things got better only a third of the time. Things stayed the same a third of the time and things got worse a third of the time. Based on this research, the current level of effectiveness of the “tell an adult” is not very good–roughly a 10% level of effectiveness in the approach mandated by statutes throughout the country.
Alexandra Wang: What are some consequences of ignoring the persistent or pervasive acts hurtful acts?
Nancy Willard: These persistent or pervasive hurtful acts create toxic stress — a form of trauma. Students become hyper-vigilant, because they never know when someone is going to say or do something that cuts to their heart and soul. Their levels of cortisol are constantly running high. Toxic stress has been shown to cause brain damage!
When neural networks are always primed to respond to danger, this causes students to not be able to calm down, to focus, or to learn. This also increases the probability that they will trigger and engage in more significant misbehavior. And, of course, because this is generally a more significant act, these bullied students then get suspended, and their expressed concerns that others are being hurtful to them are generally ignored.
Alexandra Wang: What are the consequences for students and staff when bullying is not reported or effectively addressed?
Nancy Willard: Students who are bullied either in a serious incidents or a persistently or pervasive manner think that no one at school really cares about them. They are often chronically absent. They may fail in their classes because the increased cortisol is making it not possible for them to focus. They are at increased risk of suicide and other self-harm. They are also at increased risk of bringing weapons to school and engaging in school violence. They can suffer from mental and physical health concerns at this time and for the rest of their life.
Bullying creates a toxic school culture that has been shown to negatively impact all students. Schools with higher levels of bullying have lower levels of academic success.
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Alexandra Wang: Are there other adults to whom these students can turn? What about doctors or counselors?
Nancy Willard: If students who are being bullied go to the doctor and complain of depression or anxiety, they may be placed on psychotropic drugs. I hope that this is not happening a lot. But I have heard of a sufficient number of anecdotal stories that this is a growing concern for me. I wish someone would do a study of students who are prescribed these drugs and find out how many of them are suffering from being bullied in situations where the school is doing nothing to help.
I have been discussing these concerns with counselors in the community in which I live. Very often, the young people who are their patients are experiencing being bullied. This has reportedly increased in very recent years. I have been told that they are very frustrated because even if they contact the school nothing, positive results.
Right now, I am working on a resource for counselors, social workers, and parent advocates on how to help their patients’ parents better document what is happening to file a complaint that will hopefully result in an improved response.
Alexandra Wang: If the rate of bullying is not decreasing on the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey and appears to be increasing on the New York Survey, why would principals ignore the data?
Nancy Willard: It must be noted that the concern of bullying is on top of many other concerns that school leaders must deal with.
I am not sure why school leaders are not more focused on addressing this serious concern–especially given the increase in student suicides and shootings, both of which are associated with bullying.
I am wondering if what they are doing is rationalizing: “While students may report they are being bullied on state surveys, these are really just minor hurtful incidents that they should be able to resolve by themselves. If something was really bad was happening, they would tell me. Because they know I would make things better.”
One New York school superintendent recently told me that the reason the rate of bullying was increasing on the New York Youth Risk Behavior Survey was that, because of the Dignity Act, students have a better understanding of what bullying is. So in New York in 2017, 21.7% of students reported they were bullied, based on their understanding of what bullying is. And several years ago, 71% of NYC schools reported they had zero incidents of bullying, based on what the principal’s understanding of bullying is. Whose understanding is more accurate?
Alexandra Wang: Insofar as digital behavior is concerned, is there a difference between hurtful actions of adults from those by students?
Nancy Willard: I know of no actual data on this. But it appears that, with adult cyberbullying, more of this involves trolls and attacks by adults who do not have a face-to-face relationship with each other. Most often, it appears that the behavior among students, involves those who know one another and interact in school on a daily basis.
Image courtesy Heather Johnson/The Parenting Patch on Pinterest
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Alexandra Wang: Why does by-standing happen?
Nancy Willard: Most bullying behavior is dominance behavior. Most often students, who see this occurring do not like what they see and do not admire those students who are being hurtful or those who support them.
But they often feel that they lack sufficient personal power to step in. They fear that they will become the next target. If they stand up for someone who has been cast as “deviant” by those engaging in bullying, this could result in damage to their social status. They also lack the insight and skills to know how to step in safely.
Alexandra Wang: What are some potentially negative results from disciplining a student for cyberbullying?
Nancy Willard: Punishing students for engaging in bullying or cyberbullying is not going to change this hurtful behavior. Decades of research demonstrates that punishment is rarely, if ever, effective.
However, in the digital age, the harmful impact of punishment can be even worse. Punishment often will just make the behavior go more underground. When, as a response to school discipline, anger is generated and the student who was punished can engage in digital retaliation. This digital retaliation can be anonymous and involve others who are totally outside of the control of the school.
Alexandra Wang: What can the school do when the bullying takes place in cyberspace and doesn’t occur on school property?
Nancy Willard: I have written law review article on schools responding to off-campus student speech. School officials have the legal authority to respond to off-campus hurtful student speech if that speech has, or there are reasons to believe it could, cause a substantial disruption at school or significant interference with the rights of any other student to receive an education.
Where schools most often make mistakes and end up being successfully sued is when they punish students for targeting a staff member. In these cases, there usually is not substantial disruption of other students.
However, principals must be mindful that a punitive response is not effective and could lead to digital retaliation.
Alexandra Wang: Can you cite some effective methods schools can deal with bullying in general?
Nancy Willard: When I wrote my book on cyberbullying back in 2007, I had concerns about what educators were being told about bullying prevention because the foundation of the approach was that adults had control. The foundation for effective prevention is for adults to let go of their thinking that they are in control. This necessity became very evident when seeking to address cyberbullying–which occurs in a digital environment where schools are not making the rules, school staff are not present, and when most students do not report, along with the threat of digital retaliation. However, when students reach the secondary level, adults are not in control of other interactions either.
More recently, extensive research evidence backs up these concerns. Six meta analyses of bullying prevention approaches found they had marginal to no positive impact, with zero effectiveness at the secondary level. Again, educators are not at fault. What they have been told they should do is not effective.
For the last number of years, I have been thoroughly researching what is happening, why school efforts are not being effective and, most importantly, what positive, research-based approaches can be used that would have a greater likelihood of success. I have set forth this guidance in my new book, Engage Students to Embrace Civility.
Briefly, it is necessary to address both how to reduce hurtful behavior and to improve the effectiveness of staff and principals in responding to hurtful incidents and situations.
As most bullying is done in an effort to achieve dominance, addressing the culture of the school is paramount. If students think that the best way to be considered popular, and cool, and a leader, is by denigrating those who are different and battling rivals, then they will persist in their hurtful behavior. Schools must fully engage students as important partners in the creation of a positive school environment. Schools must engage the consistently kind and compassionate students to be leaders in this effort. Using a positive social norms approach that effectively communicates to all students the fact that the vast majority of students do not like to see their peers be hurtful, do not admire those who are hurtful or their supporters, and truly admire those who are compassionate and step in to help is necessary. As is student-led efforts to promote kindness.
In addition, especially as students enter puberty, they want to be independent and resolve their own relationship issues. Schools must also teach all students the skills necessary to feel empowered and respond effectively in hurtful incidents—as a witness, the one treated badly, and the one being hurtful. Staff who witness such incidents must intervene in a way that is both instructional and restorative.
If a serious or persistent/pervasive hurtful situation becomes known, the principal should follow the excellent guidelines set forth in a Dear Colleague Letter by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. However, these guidelines should provide the basis for responding to all serious or persistent/pervasive hurtful situations, not just those involving students from protected classes.
Principals must conduct a prompt and comprehensive investigation to find out what is happening, identify the motivations, and determine whether any involved students need to be better supported by the school. If the hurtful behavior is interfering with the ability of the targeted student to learn or participate in school activities (called a hostile environment), principals must take steps reasonably calculated to stop the harassment and prevent retaliation. Principals must also find ways to remedy the harmful effects on the targeted student. Lastly and very importantly, principals also must determine whether ways in which the school operates may need to be changed to support greater inclusion. This may include correcting staff behavior, if staff are either being disrespectful to students or ignoring incidents where students are being hurtful to peers.
Alexandra Wang: You mentioned that students with disabilities are the group most often targeting by bullying. What kind of approaches are usually used to address the needs of students with disabilities?
Nancy Willard: In 2013, US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services released a Dear Colleague Letter addressing the bullying of students with disabilities. This was followed in 2014 by a Dear Colleague Letter from the Office for Civil Rights. OSERS and Office of Civil Rights warned schools that bullying of students with disabilities will often act to limit their access to Free and Appropriate Public Education. The Letters informed schools that if, students with disabilities are being bullied, or engaging in bullying (which most often is in retaliation for being bullied), this behavior should be addressed in an IEP or 504 meeting.
Alexandra Wang: How can bullying experienced by students with disabilities be addressed in an IEP or 504 meeting?
Nancy Willard: Of concern is that there has been no guidance to special education directors on how to merge the requirements for an IEP or 504 plan with the requirements for responding to discriminatory harassment under civil rights laws. A very real concern in this process is that the planning will determine that the student’s disability is a “cause” of the bullying. So, the only efforts will be to change this student’s behavior through functional skills objectives. Another damaging response would be to provide greater “protection” for the targeted student, which only results in further limitation of this student’s ability to interact with others.
For students with disabilities who are involved in bullying in any way, a comprehensive investigation/evaluation must occur. This investigation must figure out what is happening and why in order to determine what steps need to be taken to stop the hurtful situation—the hostile environment—from continuing. This should also include an assessment of the student with disabilities’ social skills, which will likely lead to new functional skills objectives and a new instructional plan.
All of the other civil rights guidelines should be fully addressed in the section on Supplemental Aids and Services. However, it is not appropriate to address the concerns of a student who is being hurtful to a student with disabilities in the student with disabilities’ plan.
I have addressed this in my new book, Engage Students to Embrace Civility.
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Alexandra Wang: What about your advice to students who are bullied?
Nancy Williard: I just released a book for teens entitled Be Positively Powerful: An Empowerment Plan for Teens who Are Bullied or Harassed. This includes positive, research-based strategies that teens can use to become more empowered so that the bullying and the harmful impact of such bullying is reduced.
I wrote this book out of frustration. As what schools are doing to address bullying is not achieving effectiveness, I thought perhaps I could better empower teens and in this way help to limit the significant harms.
Alexandra Wang: What about for parents?
Nancy Willard: Parents can also read the Be Positively Powerful book, assist their teens in implementing the strategies, and apply the strategies with their younger children. I am working on an additional resource that parents, possibly working with a counselor, social worker, or advocate, can take to better document what is happening and the harmful impact, and to insist on a more effective intervention by the school. This will be available on this page by January 2019.
Image courtesy Worcester Public School
Copyright by Alexandra Wang, 2018. All Rights Reserved.