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College of Education Bullying Researchers Target Classrooms, Community

by The College of Education / May 9, 2010

Photo of Rodkin, Espelage and TynesWith recent bullying tragedies dominating news headlines, and the federal government organizing its first-ever Bullying Prevention Summit in August, a once-shrugged "part of growing up" has sparked a national dialogue. Researchers in the College of Education seek to stamp out student harassment by reaching into classrooms to evaluate, to understand, and most importantly to prevent another tragedy.

One of those classrooms belongs to Franklin Middle School teacher Shameem Rakha. For several days of a two-month research block, a film crew visited Rakha's classroom to record a video about bullying, using the students' personal stories to act out skits. The video quickly became an eye-opening experience.

According to Rakha, one student who played the bully in one of the skits acted it out alarmingly well, surprising even herself.

"She realized that she had been a bully," Rakha said. "It was, for her, a mirror to look at her own behavior."

The video is part of filmmaker Christopher Faull's "Promoting Positive Peer Relationships (P3R): Stories of Us," supported by the College of Education. This sponsorship is just one of many ways the college explores research on bullying and its effects on not only the people who bully and their victims, but also the entire culture surrounding bullying. Many top bullying experts call the College of Education home, bringing in more than $6 million in research grants. Their expertise continually garners citations in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, TIME magazine, Woman's Day, Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Boston Globe, among others.

In addition to conducting research and collecting data from schools, each faculty member also actively tries to provide a community service to help students, teachers, and administrators evaluate and correct bullying problems within their classrooms and schools.

"The P3R initiative was developed to engage students in the process so they may help others," said Faull. "I believe that only by engaging young people in the process is it possible to bring about a positive change in school culture."

Because of this vision, the Stories of Us bullying prevention curriculum is now available in 22 states and has expanded to five countries, spreading its impact literally around the world, and it began right in Champaign-Urbana with the filming of the videos.

"Even though I had been in the classroom for 16 years, I didn't know what the kids faced today," Rakha said. "My vision of bullying hasn't changed since when I experienced bullying; it's much more subtle now."

Exploring these different facets of bullying is what Faull's P3R Initiative is all about, said Professor of Educational Psychology and P3R project consultant, Dorothy Espelage.

"Violence is complex, and it is found in all contexts," Espelage said. "Our preventative efforts need to target multiple aspects of the issue."

In addition to being a special consultant on the Stories of Us team, Espelage has made a name for herself and the college through her research. In the past five years Espelage has published several papers on homophobic bullying and is currently doing a study in 36 schools (9 Chicago Public Schools) evaluating a bullying prevention program. All too often, Espelage says, bullying prevention programs in the US are slow to produce efficacy.

She has made multiple appearances on television shows and documentaries such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Discovery Channel special Blackboards and Bullies: Are Your Kids Safe?

Jonathan Hacker, senior producer at ORTV Ltd, which produced the special for Investigation Discovery, said Espelage was a top pick to feature in the documentary.

"Dorothy provides a dynamic representation of the latest thinking behind bullying and what needs to be done to control it," Hacker said of her expertise.

Currently, Espelage is continuing work on a grant from the Centers for Disease Control as the principal investigator on Middle School Bullying and Sexual Violence: Measurement Issues and Etiological Models.

"Kids' performance in school is affected by their perceptions of safety; teachers are leaving the profession because of safety concerns; our communities are becoming increasingly violent," Espelage said.

On the policy side, new anti-bullying legislation in Illinois outlaws harassment in schools based on sexual orientation. It also expands the legal scope of bullying to include harassment by e-mail, text messaging, and websites.

"Previous legislation only required schools to have a bully-intervention policy in place," Espelage said. "The focus on the role of bullying and sexual orientation is outstanding. We know that upward of 50 percent of bullying perpetration includes homophobic epithets, and that this type of harassment is tremendously damaging to teens, as adolescence is a time of self-discovery."

Another bullying researcher, Philip Rodkin, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, gave the opening presentation at the inaugural Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit, outlining the scope of the bullying problem in schools today. He also recently appeared on NBC Nightly News and the Today show. Rodkin dedicates his work to looking at the social networks of bullies, specifically those who are well-liked by their peers.

With funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation, Rodkin studies elementary classroom social dynamics and teacher characteristics related to changes in bullying behavior over the school year in elementary classrooms in central Illinois and Indianapolis.

Ramin Karimpour, a Ph.D. student who works in Rodkin's Lab, said the changing nature of bullying has made it more complex to identify and study. Instead of physical violence, much of bullying now involves psychological harm.

"Relational aggression is just as harmful as if the kid was beat up. The methods that the kids use are changing, but the purpose is the same - to exclude people and spread rumors about them," Karimpour said. "You don't see the bruises when that happens, but it's a really important thing that parents and teachers have to pay attention to."

Another problem that Rodkin's research explores is the notion that bullies can be well-liked by their peers.

"A lot of bullies are actually some of the best kids in the classroom, and so they're protected by the teacher in a sense," Karimpour said. "They have the verbal and social schools to get away with bullying."

Rodkin's researchers visit schools to gather data, but they also help the schools develop bullying prevention programs.

"We try to change the school climate, which is different than other research labs in a sense, because we actually provide a service," Karimpour said. "It's important to make the relationship between gathering data and service equal, so if you allow us into your building to get what we need for our studies, then we should be able to provide a service."

One school benefitting from this service is Thomas Paine Elementary in Urbana. Principal Sandy Cooper said she has been very grateful for Karimpour's implementation of a bullying prevention program through seminars for teachers at her school.

"The work they have done has been a pivotal force in changing the climate at Thomas Paine," Cooper said. "We know bullying has always been around and will always be, but by consistently talking about 'we don't do this at Thomas Paine,' we will lower the incidents."

Karimpour echoed this sentiment, explaining that it is important to place focus on both the bullies and the victims, because bullying may never completely go away.

"You can't eliminate bullying," Karimpour said. "There will always be bullies but as long as we focus on containing the effects of bullying it won't become the norm."

Even after the school day is over, the harassment does not end for some victims. To address bullying in the digital arena, such as social networking websites, Brendesha Tynes, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies, earned a grant from the National Institutes of Health to research online racial discrimination. Her study will include 1,000 students in Chicago and central Illinois.

"We're trying to see whether kids' cultural resources or family support protect them from some of the negative outcomes typically associated with online racial discrimination," Tynes said, adding that pilot studies indicate that students bullied online are at greater risk for depressive symptoms and anxiety.

With a focus on racial-driven bullying, Tynes' work highlights an oft-neglected arena of research, she said.

"Many existing studies neglect race-related cyberbullying though it is very common," Tynes said, adding that one of her recent studies, published in Journal of Adolescent health, showed that 29% of youth ages 14-18 had personally experienced online racial discrimination, and 71% witnessed their peers being victimized. In addition to her research Tynes conducts teacher trainings on youth and social media, including information about "sexting" and the new anti-bullying legislation in Illinois.

On the other end of the bullying spectrum, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Sharon Tettegah has dedicated her studies to examining what precedes aggression. She believes a large part of bullying can be attributed to a lack of empathy.

"We should focus on empathy training prior to bullying prevention," Tettegah said.

Tettegah is currently collaborating with Brian Gonsalves, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, in a study using fMRI technology to measure empathy in individuals. She noted that autistic children lack empathy, but studies have shown that people can be trained to become more empathic.

If empathy can be learned, Tettegah said, then it should be modeled to students beginning at a very young age by parents and teachers.

"There is a lack of empathy across the board from teachers, students and among peers," Tettegah said. "The teacher is the key to a positive classroom environment; if the teacher is not empathic with the students, then students are not going to have empathy for others."

To bring this idea out into the community, Tettegah helped develop a free, downloadable software application called Clover, which allows students to express their experiences with bullying and aggression in an anonymous outlet.

"If the students are engaged in telling their stories about being victimized, then we can use these stories to foster empathy and show other individuals in schools," Tettegah said.

So far, these vignettes have been shown to more than 1,000 preservice teachers, and Tettegah continues to teach courses on empathy to both undergraduate students and teachers throughout Champaign county. This semester she is serving with the National Science Foundation as a program officer in the Directorate of Education and Human Resources

"Teachers from surrounding areas are taking my courses on empathy and are learning how they can show empathy and be role models in their classrooms," Tettegah said.

Modeling what they learn from their studies in classrooms is essential to all scholars who research bullying within the College of Education.

"It is based on research, but then it becomes practical," Shameem Rakha said. "Until we can end bullying through these studies, it doesn't matter that we study it."

And the way to work toward containing and eliminating the effects of bullying is to actually reach out to communities from right here in the College of Education's backyard to halfway around the globe to create an impact in classrooms, students and teachers, just as Shameem Rakha's class was impacted by the P3R initiative.

"Discussing an issue so all-reaching and meaningful as bullying, and working together in situations which required trust allowed peer groups to come together," Rakha said. "Students who never sat together started eating lunch together. We became a family and truly got to know one another, it was beautiful."

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