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When is an Anti-Bullying Policy High Quality?

Over the years 2018-2020, a European partnership of 16 organizations (7 NGOs and 9 schools) worked together on an antibullying project which aimed to develop a method high schools can use to review their antibullying policy and to plan improvements. The project was called the “Anti-Bullying Certification” project (ABC, https://www.gale.info/en/projects/abc-project) because the original aim was to develop a certificate for good antibullying policy.

This is the first of three articles covering this topic written specifically for OutBüro. Please share your comments, thoughts, and ideas in the comment section.

2. Scoring Schools On Anti-Bullying Policy

3. National Anti-Bullying Policies – Protecting LGBTQ Students

Peter Dankmeijer – Director – GALE – The Global Alliance for LGBT Education – May 2020

In the course of the project it became increasingly clear that developing a formal certification would not be so easy, and certainly not feasible within the timeframe of this project. Several issues arose, among which were:

GALE - Global Allliance for LGBT Education - OutBuro - LGBTQ Students Educators Professionals Equality Safe Schools Anti-Bully Training Policies Certification
  • What is a good antibullying policy?
  • How do you measure or score and antibullying policy?
  • Who is responsible for the maintaining the quality of the antibullying policy?

This article is the first one in a series of three where we discuss these issues. Although the ABC-project was coordinated by GALE (the Global Alliance for LGBT Education), it was a general antibullying project. Of course, LGBTIQ issues were included. Because these articles were specifically written for Outbüro, we take the specific perspective of LGBTIQ students and antibullying school policy with attention for homophobic and transphobic bullying. It is our opinion that when a school antibullying policy fails LGBTIQ students, it can not be an adequate policy anyway. And because LGBTIQ students are usually one of the most discriminated groups in high schools, adequate inclusion of LGBTIQ students in the antibullying policy could even be seen as a litmus test for the quality of the policy.

Differences of opinion on conceptualizing quality

LGBTQ-students-experience-and-are-at-higher-risk-of-being-bullied-than-hetrosexual-students-anti-bullying-GALE-Global-Aliance-for-LGBT-Education-OutBuro
LGBTIQ students are usually one of the most discriminated groups in high schools.

One of the first things we noticed in the project was that the participating schools were in the first place not so interested in assessing their policy, but more in getting information about how to improve their antibullying policy. Like all schools, the schools did have an antibullying policy and undertook a number of activities to combat bullying, and most schools were also active in combating discrimination – although specifically combating homophobia are transphobic was not always part of that effort.

Next to the schools, the partnership consisted of seven NGOs, one of which was the European Antibullying Network (EAN), of which all the other NGO-partners were members. We could say that these NGOs were quite expert on antibullying. But when we started to discuss in the partnership what a high-quality antibullying policy is – in our view – it quickly became clear that we had widely different views on this. Some partners viewed “quality” as having the “right” procedures in place, while others were thinking more in terms of involvement of the whole school population or even the entire surrounding community. Others were more scientifically oriented and advocated the use of scientific findings on what seems to work and what doesn’t work. One partner said that it all depends on the school itself and that “imposing” any criteria would take away the autonomy and ownership of the school and therefore would be counterproductive.

All partners agreed that including “diversity” was important, but there were differences in focus: whether diversity should be mainly take into account disabled students, high or low level performing students, immigrants, or if it should include LGBTIQ issues, and to what extent this all should be explicit.

These divergent views made clear that even experts don’t readily agree on what quality antibullying policy is. In the project, we made some “working” decisions to be able to progress, even though not all the partners fully agreed on all the decisions. The main decision was to start our development of a standard with a scientific basis, even though we disagreed how we should “advise” or “judge” schools on this.

Scientific Elements

The question “what works best in an effective antibullying policy” is not easy to answer. There is a lot of research on bullying and antibullying methods, but most research on methods is on programs that have been copyrighted and do not want to publish the exact content of their programs for commercial reasons. Most “effective” programs are not “one” single method but consist of a combination of several interventions. The developers of such programs commonly maintain that their program is the most ideal combination or has a unique key intervention that makes the difference. But we don’t know to what extent that is true in which are the elements that make the difference. For example, the scientific evaluations of the famous “Olweus” antibullying program show that the effect of this program may be to in large part to the enthusiasm of Dan Olweus himself as a driving force of the program. When he is not there to coach the program, it seems to be much less effective. And by the way, in most currently tested antibullying programs, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia or heteronormativity are not expeditious parts of the programs. Sometimes “discrimination” is even seen as a different phenomenon than bullying and then discriminatory bullying is not included in the program.

In the ABC-partnership we believed it would be useful for school not only to have a guide to which of these “all-round” programs are effective and in for which type of schools, but to know which elements from these programs are the “effective elements” that predict if a school policy will have a high impact. We did a review of research on potential effective elements and had a discussion to see if we – as experts on antibullying – agree with the main conclusions. Based on this review and discussion, we established a list of 6 “effective elements” of antibullying and prosocial policy.

1. Group formation and norming ground rules

Based on Dutch research by Ton Mooij on school safety, we found that starting the year with setting rules for social behavior is the single most essential intervention to create a safer school climate. Moreover, this has to be done no later than six weeks into the school year, otherwise it is too late and teachers cannot easily guide the group back from the created anarchy into a safe and supportive group. Looking from the perspective of LGBTIQ students, it would be extremely important that each class in the beginning of the year jointly decide that name-calling, social exclusion and bullying are “not done” in their class, which sets an important norm they can come back on later in the year, when incidents undoubtedly happen.

GALE Global Alliance for LGBT Eduction Students and Teachers discussion on what works to combat bullying - OutBuro
Students and teachers discuss when an antibullying policies work, don’t and explore improvements.

Similar to the research of Ton Mooij, Bruce Tuckman found that groups have a typical kind of development. Teachers need to clearly guide this group formation to establish a supportive group. Tuckman distinguishes 4 group phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing. In the forming phase, students usually keep quiet and look around what this new group is about. The storming phase starts when the more dominant individuals step forward and claim a position of status in the group. In typical heteronormative environments, the most handsome and loud students, like macho boys and “top bitches” among the girls, take the initiative and may be able to establish themselves as informal leaders. Teachers can influence this storming phase by doing cooperative activities which show that all group members have their own worth and that your status in the group does not only depend on being handsome, loud or mean. When this first “picking order” has been established, the group develops informal norms on how to interact within the group and to outsiders. This is called “norming”. In this phase, the teacher can initiate a discussion about class rules about social behavior and facilitate the setting of explicit norms in the group, rather than just leave it to the anarchy of the group process. The “performing” phase is the phase where the norms and ground rules have stabilized. In a balanced and prosocial group, the performance is constructive and cooperative; ”high status” students protect and take care of other students. Students who are less fast or less able to learn, or minority students, are included in group processes, friend circles, and helped when they are in need, and protected against attacks from other groups. In a group where the power distribution is unbalanced or where “leaders” exert their power in a selfish or abusive way, asocial and negative behavior may become the norm. Processes like “kiss up to leaders and kick down to unpopular students” (bootlickocracy) may become class culture. Sexism and homophobia are often rampant in bootlickocracy, gang-like groups. Like Mooij, Tuckman thinks the group formation phases commonly take about 6 to 8 weeks. In bootlickocracy groups, most antibullying programs or LGBTIQ emancipation programs will have little effect.

2. Understanding how bullying works and how to act against it

Another effective element that is found commonly across effective antibullying programs, is explaining how bullying processes work and discussing with students (and with teachers) how to act against it in a practical way. A major misconception is when people think that bullying is based on individual negative behavior from a bully towards a victim. Although it is true that bullying implies perpetrators and victims, research has shown that the most important factor in the prolongation of bullying are the bystanders. The bystanders are the students that are watching, are fascinated by the violence, and do little or nothing. Some of the bystanders may be inclined to help the victim, but may be afraid to act up because of they are afraid to be victimized themselves or to lose status. Other bystanders may attempt to raise their own status by helping the perpetrators by cheering them on, or helping the perpetrator in other ways. Contrary to common expectations, the “bullies” are usually not “little nasty criminals”. More often they are the most popular guys and girls in the school, and they bully less powerful people as part of the way they establish and maintain their popularity. Sometimes they are former victims of bullying would try to protect themselves in a preventive way by bullying others. Most LGBTIQ people understand that conforming to heteronormativity plays a major role in this “popularity” and power competition, and in the exclusion and degradation of people who are nonconforming.

If we understand these processes, then it becomes obvious that just punishing a single bully and comforting a single victim is a drop on a hot plate in an unsafe environment. Effective antibullying programs are able to change the atmosphere into a non-competitive and cooperative environment. Heteronormativity, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are integral elements of competitive and exclusionary environments. It now also becomes clear why a range of antihomophobia programs, which only focus on visibility of and the empathy with the “poor” or “normalcy” of gay, lesbian or transgender “victims”, are probably not very effective. Although it requires more sophistication, effective antihomophobia and transphobic programs should focus on integrating the deconstruction of heteronormativity and this way contributing to a much broader positive and cooperative environment.

3. Systematically creating commitment

A school policy/strategy becomes more effective when more stakeholders have been involved in its development and maintenance in a participatory way and when they are more committed to it.

This “effective element” comes from a body of research on how organizations can improve themselves. We base ourselves particularly on Everett Rogers and John Kotter. Rogers distinguishes innovators, early adopters, an early and a late majority and laggards as different kinds of people with different attitudes towards innovation. Innovators are the people who always take initiative to experiment with improvement. Early adopters follow the innovators when they have the impression that an innovation may work. The early majority and the late majority participants don’t take initiatives. They follow the lead when an innovation proves to be good or attractive. The early majority tends to adopt successful innovation, but the late majority is often hesitant, and often only goes along with it because “everybody else does it” (social norming) rather than out of intrinsic interest. The laggards remain against change even when the majority adopts it. Such people either claim an exemption within the new routine or they leave the organization.

One lesson we learn from Rogers is that you cannot expect the entire school population to adopt an improved antibullying policy at once. Successful innovation requires going through a number phases. The school management should engage innovators first and then gradually extend the team commitment to a larger part of the staff , students and possibly even parents and community stakeholders. The laggards may be loudly against and the LGBTIQ movement may be tempted to focus on them because they are so loud and seem most threatening. But according to Rogers, there is as much risk that this strategy would focus the attention to the resistance rather than facilitating the growth of commitment.

Another lesson we learned from Rogers is that a key moment in the innovation process is the decision of the management to engage with a new idea. This decision usually takes place of the innovators community initiative and halfway the commitment of a somewhat larger group of early adopters. The estimate is that about 15 to 20% of the school population to support the initiative to improve the antibullying policy, or for example to include LGBTIQ issues in school policy. Rogers calls this the “chasm” because many innovations in organizations fail because not enough key people support the proposals at this early stage of development. Good ideas fall into the chasm of other daily routines and priorities.

When the decision is taken, the proposed new routines are tried out (“implementation”) and tailored to the organization in order to be able to integrate them successfully. The closing phase of Rogers is confirmation, when the majority adopts the new routines and when the new practices are documented and new students and new staff are systematically introduced to them.

Another researcher, John Kotter, claims the key to organizational change is that your heart must be in it. And with your heart we mean the heart of the organization. Innovation cannot be a trick, method or technique; commitment is the heart of change. When we translate this to antibullying, or to antihomophobic and transphobic bullying, it becomes clear that antibullying measures or LGBTIQ integration in school policies cannot rely on simple rules or tricks, like (only) labelling bathrooms as gender-neutral or hang up posters or rainbow flags. The core of the effort should be in why and how the entire school population feels it is important to support this cause.

4. Positive behaviour support

A fourth effective element we found was to support positive behavior and ignore negative behavior as much as possible. Complimenting, rewarding and no-blame methods are much more effective than negative methods, like blaming bullies, extra attention for bullies, and punishment. This finding goes against the common feeling that antibullying policy should focus on reporting, apprehending, and punishing bullies. In the context of homophobia and transphobia, this may even be more controversial. In one of the GALE trainings, a gay teacher became extremely upset when I asked if he could think of a positive alternative to punishing a homophobic student. For LGBTIQ people, the threat of bullying and discrimination may trigger a fight or flight instinct that impels them to call for punishment, even though this is not likely to change the mind of the homophobic student.

A large body of research shows that punishment does not really work to establish prosocial or tolerant behaviour. A main effect of punishment is that students were punished don’t change their attitude and keep engaging in the same negative behavior, but this time outside the view of authorities. The general lesson is that punishment pushes negative behavior underground rather than eliminating or changing it.

It is true that the threat of punishment can lead to less negative behaviour, but only when there is a rigid and continuous monitoring and discipline. This type of prison-like discipline is not consistent with modern views on how to help young people to become empowered and democratic citizens. Role-modelling strict behavioural control will deprive students of important learning experiences in the area of taking own responsibility. Homophobic and transphobic students are part of a heteronormative environment and punishing them for what they experience as “normal” is not the best way to correct their heteronormative expectations and judgments.

Another body of research shows that giving compliments is a strong motivator and that it makes people feel empowered, happy and rewarded. When teachers and other school staff compliment students consistently for positive and cooperative behavior, or for tolerant and reflective statements, this will role-model positive behavior and influence other students who are more afraid of change.

One alternative method to deal with conflict and negative behaviour is called “restorative”. These methods have a so-called “no-blame” perspective. The no-blame perspective involves both perpetrators, victims and bystanders in the solution of conflicts.

One method is “Undercover Teams”; small teams of students who work ‘secretly’ together to solve problematic situations in their class. Both bully and victim are part of the team, next to some influential group members. If an LGBTIQ students would be excluded or discriminated in a class, an undercover team would not talk about who did what or blame someone for being wrong. Instead they jointly focus on changing the situation by making small-scale resolutions to support the LGBTIQ student. Small-scale interventions by the undercover group could be not staying silent when there is name-calling, asking the LGBTIQ student to join for lunch or support activities (to change exclusion to inclusion), or to give support to the victim when they are bullied by others, especially by involving supportive bystanders. By involving the perpetrator as a partner, the perpetrator is given the chance to cooperate with the solution and implicitly it is shown that the perpetrator is not seen as “the best person” but as somebody who made a mistake and who can change. When the perpetrator does not feel comfortable in changing their behavior right away into supportive behavior, their being part of the undercover team at least compels them to not frustrate the undercover team solutions.

Another method is the “Real Justice Session” where the perpetrators and victims, their peers and responsible adults are invited to one or more sessions to discuss and decide how to create “justice” in escalated conflicts. “Real Justice Sessions” could be more appropriate when the entire school community or the wider community is involved in perpetrating a homophobic and transphobic atmosphere. By getting all stakeholders together and get into dialogue about how to interact in a positive social way with each other, there is a better chance that key stakeholders in the community can agree on cooperate and role model a positive environment. Real Justice Sessions were invented in Australia to solve structural tensions between originals and white Australians in and around schools, but their application has also been tried out for homophobia and other conflicts that go beyond small-scale group tensions.

5. Focus on school culture and prevention

A good school policy focuses at least as much on prevention (creating a positive school climate, not only preventing negative behavior) as it does on handling incidents. Incidents will always occur, but need to be seen in the wider context of small group processes and the influence of the larger school system/routine.

One school of research focuses on “prosocial behaviour” or “prosociality”. The prosocial method therefore puts a lot of value on creating a “pedagogical community” within the school, but also with parents and community groups and leaders. Most schools agree with this principle, but in practice the adoption of such of perspective may become difficult when in-depth prosociality requires a political choice: social inclusion is social inclusion regardless of the minority group.

Although many schools think that “education” or a safer school climate is neutral and non-political choice, and practice it is often not. This means that schools will have to think hard about their position regarding inclusion in the world, and the macro and micro consequences this has for their strategy and policy.

6. Clear and consistent school rules

School rules and procedures are necessary, and should be concise, clear, widely shared with all concerned and consistently applied. Paper-only policies in drawers are useless.

Many schools have a long list of detailed rules. The list is often too long to remember or to recite. Research shows that most people can remember a list of 4 or 5 items, when the list becomes longer, it becomes too difficult. It is better to have a short list of 4 key ground rules and discuss with teachers and students how these “ground principles” work out into more detailed norms on social behaviour. We get often questions of schools which 4 rules should be formulated. As Ton Mooij already noted, this does not really matter. When a group of students or teachers discuss this, they usually come up with similar types of ground rules.

This learning experience also is relevant for LGBTIQ issues. Many LGBTIQ organizations call for specific rules regarding LGBTIQ discrimination. The argument for this is that when rules are not specific, they it will not be followed up and get lost into heteronormative “generic” approaches. While it is true that heteronormativity tends to eradicate attention for LGBTIQ issues, I think LGBTIQ movement needs to learn to recognize that sexual and gender diversity sensitivity in schools cannot be protocolized in detail. In the ABC-project we had an elaborate discussion with students from five countries on this. They agreed that diversity is an important subject and all relevant groups have specific needs for sensitive treatment, but at the same time that it should be part of the entire openness and togetherness of the school culture.

The ABC-antibullying policy checklist

The ABC-project partnership adopted an antibullying policy checklist which the school can use to check what they are doing in the area of antibullying. In developing the checklist, we have decided to use 10 checkpoints that are based on the scientific findings described, but framed in the 4 categories of how antibullying policy is traditionally described: pedagogical culture (the joint establishment of the antibullying strategy), prevention (rules and dialogue), response (stopping violence, restorative approach, how to handle incidents) and tailored interventions (how to deal with repeated negative behavior and structural discrimination).

The current ABC-antibullying policy checklist is probably not the ultimate solution, nor ideal to fully integrate non-discrimination policy in schools.

In other projects which are more specific on homophobia and transphobia, GALE used another model to frame school policy: the “GEEC” model. “GEEC” stands for Goals, Environment, Education and Counseling. These four “pillars” of school policy are more common to describe the entire school policy rather than just the antibullying policy. In the GEEC model most of the traditional antibullying policy would be located in the “environment” category and it would maybe be enriched by some lessons in the “education” category. But heteronormativity pervades the whole school system is not something that only pays out in the school yard or hallways (the environment). Therefore seems more appropriate to fully integrate anti-heteronormativity in the entire school system.

GALE will now attempt to redevelop the results of the ABC-project into a more specific “gaynergy” label, which is even more adapted to monitor and properly integrate anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and anti-transphobia in the entire school system.

About the author: Peter Dankmeijer
Peter Dankmeijer was trained as a teacher, but works now as senior consultant on LGBTI issues. He is director of the GALE, the Global Alliance for LGBT Education ( a global network of about 1000 educators, providing an exchange platform and doing projects, www.gale.info).

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