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Bullying Prevention as a Citywide Goal

The five cornerstones of an effective policy, from Washington D.C.
photo illustration of a municipal building or state capital

Following the 2012 enactment of a landmark bullying prevention law, Washington, D.C., has taken a more comprehensive approach to youth bullying than many other cities — an approach that sees prevention as not solely the responsibility of teachers or parents, but as a citywide mandate with shared responsibilities. In fact, every city agency in D.C. that provides services to children is required to implement a bullying prevention policy. We spoke to Suzanne Greenfield, the director of the Citywide Youth Bullying Prevention Program, about what’s made D.C.’s program effective.

  • The city has a single, shared definition of bullying. One impediment to addressing bullying is that teachers, parents, and students often have different perceptions of what it means. “What we hear from kids all the time is that adults don’t believe them, or ignore them, because everybody’s talking about bullying in a different way,” says Greenfield, “and that can make the problem worse.” Her team created a singular definition of bullying for every city school and program to use, which has helped everyone approach prevention and response in the same way.
  • At the same time, each school has the autonomy to implement a custom anti-bullying strategy. There’s no “one size fits all” answer to bullying, Greenfield notes, because it looks different in every school, based on its students’ ages, home neighborhoods, and racial and religious makeups. While Greenfield’s team created a model bullying prevention policy, which exemplifies what each school’s policy should include, she encourages schools to use those guidelines to design policies based on individual needs. “We don’t proscribe,” she says. “We just say, ‘You need to be doing this work, and you need to be doing it in a comprehensive way, and we will help you think about what makes sense for your school.’”
  • Anti-bullying policies focus on prevention. The model policy uses a public health framework to focus on three levels of prevention strategies: primary prevention, which addresses all youth and staff in all settings; secondary prevention, which targets youth who are at risk of bullying or being bullied and places in which bullying is more likely to occur; and tertiary intervention, which responds to bullying incidents after they happen. Each D.C. school’s policy is expected to similarly explain how it creates an inclusive community and how it plans on supporting its most vulnerable students. As the model policy explains, “While sanctions are an important part of a bullying prevention plan, certainty of detection has been shown to be a much more important component of a successful prevention policy than severity of response.”
  • Anti-bullying efforts reach kids throughout the day. While initiatives in schools are vital, bullying also happens before and after the school day ends. With a citywide approach to prevention, consistent messaging can reach students everywhere that they interact with city agencies — at afterschool programs, on buses, at the library, and at recreation centers. When kids hear the same ideas throughout the day about why bullying is wrong, they are more likely to understand that this behavior is never acceptable and that all adults are noticing and caring about how they act.
  • Anti-bullying efforts involve parents. The consistent messaging from D.C. agencies about prevention and the importance of inclusivity extends into children’s homes, too. Greenfield says her team has tried to clearly communicate with families about why the city has taken this approach to handling bullying. Without an explanation from schools and educators, families may mistakenly believe that a focus on prevention, rather than punishment, isn’t an effective way to stop bullying. Their children may grow confused if they receive conflicting forms of discipline and social-emotional learning at school and at home.

Additional Resources

  • Read and download Washington, D.C.'s Tips for Parents publication.
  • Download the district's prevention and intervention toolkit for schools and educators.

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