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Published March 10, 2020

By MICHELLE KEARNS

Fighting bullying and sexual harassment by filling in the gaps: Equipping high school students with training and knowledge

Williamsville’s three high schools part of a new three-year, $1.38 million social norms and bystander intervention training project

The news that most students at Williamsville East High School don’t like bullying and sexual harassment­­ — yet almost half of them don’t know what to say to stop it — didn’t surprise Principal Brian Swatland. The fall survey findings he was analyzing were part of an anti-bullying training and pilot project in the Williamsville Central School District. The three-year grant project called “Norms and Bystander Intervention Training” or NAB IT! aims to better equip students to navigate the bullying and sexual harassment situations they witness. This initiative is being led by Amanda Nickerson, director of GSE’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention and professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology.

“It reaffirmed what a wonderful school we have here,” said Swatland.

He sees how students reach out to each other in the cafeteria, including anyone left sitting alone. Yet as he considered the results from 253 students, or about a quarter of the school’s enrollment, it seemed many were puzzled about how to confront a bully and help the bullied.

“We can ask people to do something,” Swatland said, but “if we don’t give them tools to know how to intervene, we can’t expect them to.”

Teens struggle. Some feel defeated by bullies. There is a need for lessons in what to do. NAB IT! aims to craft a solution. Educators will train high school leaders who can influence school culture, lead by example and help share exactly how to stop bullying and sexual harassment. There’s a name for bystanders who know how to intervene: “Upstanders.” The new project intends to arm Williamsville East with a new crew of these student “upstanders.”

“In order for this to work, it has to be a partnership. We need ambassadors,” said Nickerson. “I’ve been very passionate about understanding the role of the bystanders in bullying: The peers who see and hear bullying but don’t intervene to stop it.”

This conundrum is a core problem for educators and a focus of the new $1.38 million grant awarded to Nickerson to help high school students learn to navigate bullying and harassment behaviors at a vulnerable time in their lives. Research shows that peers witness more than 80 percent of victimization incidents, but intervene in less than 20 percent of these occurrences.

NAB IT!’s funding comes from the Institute of Education Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. The project targets the complexity and difficulty of bullying and harassment with a series of steps and will eventually include all three Williamsville high schools.

Now that the Williamsville East survey results are in, a poster and social media campaign will launch in the months ahead.

NABIT social media campaign images.

Sample publicity campaign posters.

The publicity will share key highlights: A majority of students surveyed strongly disagree with bullying and harassment. Ninety-eight percent agreed that if they see someone being bullied or harassed they should do something. Yet only 51 percent knew what to say to stop a bully.

This phase of the project aims to help give teens confidence: The more they know about how their peers think, the more likely they are to act publicly if they know they are in line with the majority.

“We’re going to show the true norms in hopes of changing those behaviors,” said Maggie Manges, who is working on the project and her PhD in the counseling psychology and school psychology doctoral program.

Next year, a group of peer leaders, selected by student nomination, will practice intervening. Training will offer them an answer to what often happens: People witness bullying and harassment and freeze in the moment, not knowing what to do. A solution: Say something kind afterward.

“Taking responsibility and doing something, even if it is small, for the person being victimized, can be really helpful,” said Manges. “It doesn’t have to be this big heroic stand in front of the bully. Just letting someone know you are sorry can be impactful.”

So far, student reactions to the project have been heartening. In recent poster-design focus groups, almost all of the 31 participating students volunteered to be project ambassadors and share details about it with their friends.

They even liked the acronym NAB IT! They said it’s fun to say, it’s catchy and they could see students saying it to each other in the hall, said Gina Bellavia, project director for the grant.

That kind of student support is key to the project having an impact.

“We can’t have any effect on them if they are not engaging with the campaign,” she said. “We want them to be noticing the posters and … talking about it and definitely embracing it.”

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