How to Build an Effective Bullying Prevention Program

By Paul Langhorst


The Missouri Center for Education Safety held its first annual bullying summit at Tan-Tar-A Resort, situated in central Missouri on the massive Lake of the Ozarks. The location prompted me to write this article which compares building a dam to building an effective bullying prevention program.

The Union Electric Company created the lake when it built the Bagnell dam across the Osage River in 1929. The dam took two years to construct and just 77 days to fill; the 77 days is amazing because the lake stretches for over 100 miles, with so many coves and tributaries that it has more shoreline than the state of California!

The Bagnell Dam and its construction were on my mind when I was asked to introduce Dr. Scott Poland, who gave the opening keynote address on "Bullying Victimization and School Safety." To connect Dr. Poland's introduction with the Lake and surroundings, I offered an analogy between creating an effective bullying prevention program and building a dam. After the introduction, I thought more about the analogy, and my research and experience confirmed how closely the two concepts matched. Consider a few critical elements in creating an effective bullying prevention program (or building a dam).

  • Vision & Leadership - Before the Bagnell Dam was built, it took the vision of just a few key individuals to foresee the benefits that the dam would bring. Bullying prevention programs do not simply start on their own; they take the vision of a leader to establish the ultimate goals and the timetable for implementation. In our work with the CyberBully Hotline, we see far too many schools that have bullying policies, but no leadership or vision to create actual bullying prevention programs.
  • Build a Construction Team - Once the leadership and vision have been established, a school must build a bullying prevention team consisting of a few key people who are able to lead individual groups or committees on specific aspects of the plan. These individuals might have skills in counseling, psychology, technology, communications, or school safety. That nucleus of key people then adds members as the program grows. The Bagnell Dam took thousands of workers, all organized by skill and specialty, under the direction of just a few individuals, to complete the project.
  • Regulations - Before a shovel of earth was turned at the Bagnell site, Union Electric had to navigate legislative and legal logistics and know the government regulations that controlled dam construction and power generation. All 50 states now have anti-bullying laws, with some more stringent than others. Before schools start to build, they must know their state laws so that they can build programs in compliance with the laws, not against them. Schools should also consider building to the highest standard possible, not to the lowest, to be prepared should state laws be strengthened.
  • Survey and Design - The Bagnell dam site was chosen after meticulous surveys of the Osage River valley. Before starting bullying prevention efforts, schools should conduct school climate surveys. The surveys show how much bullying is taking place, where it is taking place, how often it happens, what type of bullying is most prevalent, and what other types of harassment or intimidation issues exist. The survey information guides the building of the bullying prevention plan. If a school has a big bullying problem - it needs a big dam. If the bullying problem is small, the school can consider a smaller dam. Programs like Olweus, PBIS, and others are deeply rooted in the school climate survey process and the CyberBully Hotline Resource Center offers sample survey questions.Once a school has the survey results, it must consider the severity and types of bullying incidents and the age levels at which they occur. This allows the school to build a program to meet the needs of its exact situation, not that of some other school. Each school should research bullying prevention programs, such as Olweus, PBIS, CharacterPlus, Steps to Respect, and others to build a unique, school-specific program.
  • Foundation - A strong dam is built on a strong foundation. A good bullying prevention plan, likewise, should be built on a strong foundation, with the building blocks consisting of early education, prevention, engagement, counseling - for bullies, the bullied, and parents - discipline, justice, and rewards.
  • Funding - Funding is a perpetual issue for schools and it challenges all programs, not just bullying prevention. Once a school has established the cost of implementation and ongoing operations, it must make sure the funding is in place. There are many sources for grants and other funds to help support schools' efforts. If operating funds or grants are not available, schools can reach out to their communities by looking towards corporate sponsors, local law enforcement agencies, and other fundraisers. I know...parents are tapped out, but bullying is different. Many will give their time, talents, and treasures to this cause. There is a big ROI with bullying prevention, and investment in prevention will save money and prevent spending in other areas later. The biggest ROI, of course, is the safety and wellbeing of students.
  • Perseverance - The Bagnell Dam is actually the second envisioned for the Osage River. The first was much farther up river; it failed due to lack of leadership and funding (sound familiar?). Bullying prevention programs take years to build. Portions can be implemented immediately, like classroom meetings and increased communication efforts, but the results of those efforts may take months or years to materialize. Change can be subtle and benefits take time.
  • Communication - A road and phone lines run across the top of the Bagnell Dam. Strong communication must, likewise, run throughout your bullying prevention program. Staff must be fully informed and trained on the program, parents and students must know policies and plans, students must know what is expected of them, and the reasons and goals behind the program. Most importantly, students must know how to communicate and reach out for help when they are victimized or when they see someone else being victimized. At the MO CES Bullying Prevention Summit, we learned that when students are bullied, the people they most often tell first are other students. However, as children grow older, more and more - they tell no one. Communication is the key and that is why the CyberBully Hotline was created, as a means to help students more easily report bullying and harassment incidents when they may be fearful of face-to-face meetings.
  • Collateral Damage - When the Bagnell Dam was built, entire towns were destroyed or moved, including the town of Bagnell. Bullying prevention plans have consequences - hopefully mostly good ones, but schools must watch for negative consequences: adverse student reactions, negative reactions from teachers and staff, parent misunderstandings, etc.
  • Action - After a school's plan is developed, it must move heaven and earth to implement it. Most importantly, if a bullying incident is reported - the school must act on it! It must treat every report as if it is fact until evidence proves otherwise. Inaction speaks louder to kids than action. If they come for help, and the school does nothing, it will undermine the program and prevent reporting and participation in the future.
  • Monitor Frequently-. The Bagnell Dam is heavily monitored for cracks and leaks. Likewise, an effective bullying prevention program should also be monitored. Conduct the initial bullying survey annually and use it as a benchmark. Analyze discipline referrals, HIB, absenteeism, and school performance factors as evidence that a program is working or that it requires adjustments.

Building an effective bullying prevention program is very much like building a dam; one restricts the impact of wanton bullying while the other restricts the unmanaged surge of water. The absence of these restrictions can be equally destructive. There are many more details to completing and operating an effective bullying prevention program. The above outline provides a guide, a framework of the main components, into which the secondary issues can more easily fall into place.