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Professor creates course, publishes research to help educators fight 'terroristic bullying,' troublesome behaviors

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

LAWRENCE — October is National Anti-bullying Month. While educators across the country are working on ways to fight the problem, a University of Kansas professor is working to train future teachers and those already in schools to curb bullying.

Robert Harrington, professor of psychology and research in education, is in the first year of offering an online program for working teachers and administrators in Kansas schools. The bullying prevention course shares strategies, practical methods and information on school-wide policies. Harrington’s goal is to create a certification program for educators that addresses bullying, classroom behavior management and student mental health challenges in the schools that includes hands on practicum experiences.

“The hope is because bullying is such a big issue we can reach as many people as possible throughout the state,” Harrington said. “And hopefully we’ll be able to take these lessons outside the state as well.”

Harrington also recently launched an advanced seminar course for doctoral students in KU’s School of Education. The course, like its online counterpart for working educators, emphasizes the importance of recognizing all forms of bullying and effective ways of dealing with the problem. Educators need to recognize that bullying goes far beyond physical violence or verbal threats, Harrington said. The course emphasizes that bullying can take place both inside the school and outside of normal school hours and that educators recognize behaviors such as sexual harassment and sexual orientation and gender identity issues, which are often largely ignored in school policies. The courses also stress the importance of acknowledging all forms of bullying such as cyber, extortion, hazing and behaviors based on disability and mental health.

“You can’t stop or prevent bullying unless you know what all the forms are,” Harrington said. “We talk about the importance of recognizing all the climates of bullying as well: emotional, social and physical.”

The course content addresses research Harrington and colleagues have performed in anti-bullying recognition and response. Among the tactics the students learn is proper response. The majority of the time when bullying incidents are addressed in schools, the offending student is suspended, given detention or temporarily removed from the school environment. Research has shown these students return to school having learned the lesson it is more important to not get caught than to not engage in such behaviors.

Harrington has presented a research article with Carol Daniels, assistant professor at Emporia State University, exploring when bullying becomes a crime. Harrington refers to the behaviors as “terroristic bullying.” Often such behaviors in schools are considered a problem to be dealt with only by the school or perhaps parents, but many real life incidents illustrate behaviors that cross the line of assault or break other laws. The most recent example is the case of a 14-year-old student who allegedly was raped and bullied by fellow students and townspeople in Maryville, Mo. It’s not easy for schools to know exactly what to do when criminal bullying including threatening cyber bullying happens and the research has identified guidelines educators can use to know when it’s appropriate to engage outside agencies such as law enforcement in responding to bullying incidents.

The common assumption is that bullying takes place only between students. Harrington and Daniels have presented a position paper on Loren’s Law, the Kansas statute that addresses teachers who may bully their own students. A large part of stopping bullying, Harrington said, is recognizing that bullying is not just any mean or discourteous behavior. Bullying is persistent, malicious behavior that exploits a power differential and occurs over time more than once. While that power differential is often present among students, it can be and is a problem among teachers’ relationships with students at times. Harrington emphasized that while bullying by teachers can happen, he believes that the vast majority of teachers treat their students with respect and dignity. On the other hand, teachers can be victims of student violence, too. A crime that was committed against a new, 24-year-old female teacher in Danvers, Mass., who was allegedly killed by a student last week is evidence of that.

“We need to recognize that anyone can be a bully,” Harrington said. “We especially need laws that say anyone can be a bully, a victim or a bystander, and everybody who enters a school building is going to be protected. Everyone needs to feel safe in school and it is the job of the schools to keep students safe. That requires schoolwide bullying policies, which many schools do not have. For more information on how your state is doing in bullying, go to stopbullying.gov.”

The course Harrington is creating also addresses another topic many don’t associate with bullying: students bullying educators. Earlier this year Harrington presented research on students bullying professors, including several real-life examples of students physically intimidating or threatening teachers, often when they are unhappy with a grade they received. Many educators, especially at the college level, do not have training in classroom management or how to respond to such behaviors and university policies rarely offer guidance if they even exist. Harrington’s keynote presentation on “Professors Bullied by their Students,” presented at the Ireland International Conference on Education, was chosen for the conference’s Outstanding Contributor Award.

Harrington said the pervasive nature of bullying drives his work to help educators learn more about the problem and how to address it. Next spring Harrington is offering another online course, “Overcoming Mental Health Challenges in the Classroom.” Harrington encourages anyone with questions about how to fight bullying to contact him at rgharrin@ku.edu. Those who have taken the course or shown an interest in combatting bullying are often quite effective with a little guidance, he said.

“People ask why I’m drawn to this topic,” Harrington said. “It’ not that I’m drawn to mayhem. I love anti-bullying and I love classroom management. I enjoy problem solving and helping people solve problems.”

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