Bullying and Peer Victimization at School: Perceptual Differences between Students and School Staff

Article excerpt

Abstract. Although bullying and other forms of peer victimization at school are a growing concern, there has been little research examining the potential differences between student and staff perceptions of the frequency of bullying, most common location and forms of bullying, severity of the problem, social norms related to bullying, and responses to witnessing bullying. The data for this study came from a district-wide survey of student (n = 15,185) and staff (n = 1,547) perceptions of and experiences with bullying conducted in 75 elementary, 20 middle, and 14 high schools. Results indicated that staff at all school levels (elementary, middle, and high) underestimated the number of students involved in frequent bullying. Both middle school students and staff tended to report the greatest exposure to and concern about bullying. Staff with greater efficacy for handling bullying situations were more likely to intervene and less likely to make the bullying situation worse. Staff members' own experiences with bullying were predictive of their attitudes toward bullying and perceived efficacy for handling a bullying situation. Implications for prevention and intervention by school psychologists are provided.

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Bullying and related forms of aggression are of increasing concern for students, as nearly 30% of youth are estimated to experience frequent involvement in bullying (Bradshaw, Sawyer, & O'Brennan, 2006; Nansel et al., 2001). Bullying is broadly defined as a class of intentional and repeated acts that occur through physical, verbal, and relational forms in situations where a power difference is present (Olweus, 1993). A growing number of studies have documented the short- and long-term consequences of bullying on social, emotional, and mental health problems for both the victim and perpetrator (Gladstone, Parker, & Malhi, 2006). Because of the pervasiveness of this behavior, school psychologists and other school staff have been encouraged to intervene with students involved in bullying situations. Whole-school bullying prevention approaches (e.g., Olweus Bullying Prevention Program; Olweus, 1993) are often recommended, as they are intended to increase collaboration among school psychologists, teachers, and students to enhance the school's social climate and alter the social norms related to bullying (Rigby & Bagshaw, 2003; Smith, Schneider, Smith, & Ananiadou, 2004). However, fostering an effective partnership between youth and adults to prevent bullying and other forms of school violence can be a complex and difficult task.

Student and Staff Perceptions of Bullying

Much of the difficulty surrounding whole-school bullying prevention efforts appears to stem from the perceptual differences between school staff and students (Houndoumadi & Pateraki, 2001; Newman & Murray, 2005; Stephens, Kyriacou, & Tonnessen, 2005). Past research has shown that many teachers are unaware of the seriousness of peer victimization at their school and its consequential effects on students (Nicolaides, Yuichi, & Smith, 2002). Moreover, teachers and other school staff tend to underestimate the number of students being bullied at their school (Houndoumadi & Pateraki, 2001) and expect that children will resolve these conflicts on their own (Newman, 2003; Stockdale, Hangaduambo, Larson, & Sarvela, 2002). Teachers and school psychologists may also react differently to witnessing peer victimization depending on the perceived context of the act (Newman & Murray, 2005), as well as the student's age (Rigby & Barnes, 2002) and social status (Nesdale & Pickering, 2006).

Teachers' inability to effectively identify bullying behavior, particularly verbal and social forms, may be part of the problem. Leff, Kupersmidt, Patterson, and Power (1999) found that teachers more effectively identified bullying behaviors among elementary school children than adolescents. …