Identifying victims of bullying with peer nominations

iStock_000012608964XSmallHow many students in your school are silently enduring bullying? Few students want to be the ones to snitch on a bully, but many are willing to identify the victims of bullies, according to a recent study in the American School Counselor Association journal.

The more nominations a student received in a semi-annual survey on bullying in one Virginia middle school, the greater the likelihood that the student was a confirmed victim of bullying, the researchers write. 56% of students with 3 or more peer nominations in this schoolwide survey and 73% with 4 or more were confirmed by school counselors as victims of bullying. About 90% of students who received 9 or more nominations were found to be victims of bullying.

“Peer nominations offer a promising strategy for schools to use in meeting the need to identify victims of bullying,” the authors write. “They can be used to supplement other measures and offer the advantage of giving school staff names for follow-up interviews and more direct interventions.”

The middle school gathered peer nominations of bullying victims as part of a general survey on bullying administered to students in the fall and again in the spring. A roster of all 500 students in the school was included with the survey and students were asked to identify peers who had been victims of bullying in the previous 30 days.

Peer nominations were collected from 1,178 students who completed the surveys over 7 semesters, from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2010. For students who completed the survey multiple times, only the first survey was used. The resulting sample included 58% in the 6th grade, 23% in the 7th grade and 19% in the 8th grade.

School counselors reviewed the peer nomination section of the survey and counted how many nominations each student received. They then interviewed the nominated student and sometimes the peers who might have witnessed or participated in the bullying incidents. When students were not confirmed victims, they were nominated as pranks or because they were involved in a conflict with another peer, the researchers write.

Many educators want to be aware of conflicts between students if not intervene in them. Also in the unconfirmed pile, because they did not meet the parameters of the study, were students involved in bullying more than 30 days previously.

The middle school students completed the School Climate Bullying Survey (SCBS; Cornell, 2011), a 45-item self-report measure that includes a series of questions about bullying others or being bullied by others.

While many educators often rely on surveys in which students anonymously report on bullying or self-report that they are victims of bullying, this does not allow school personnel to intervene with students who need support, the researchers write.

The Virginia middle school in the study had previously implemented the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and adopted schoolwide rules against bullying with appropriate consequences. Teachers reinforced rules in the classroom and worked to increase student knowledge and empathy regarding bullying.

To guide students in interpreting interactions that occurred in school while completing the survey items, the Olweus (1996) definition of bullying was included in the survey and adapted so it would be more familiar to American students. According to the survey,

“Bullying is defined as the use of one’s strength or popularity to injure, threaten, or embarrass another person. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength argue or fight.”

After reading the definition, students answered a series of questions about bullying using a 4-point scale (never, once or twice, about once a week, several times per week). First they responded to the statement, “By this definition, I have been bullied at school in the past month. Subsequent items inquired about whether the student was experiencing physical, verbal, social or cyber types of bullying.

The SCBS asks students, “Does bullying take place anywhere at school?” At the end of the survey, students nominated peers whom they perceived to be victims of bullying in the previous month. The definition of bullying was repeated and students were given a roster of all students in the schools.

Counselors were sensitive to the possibility that the student might deny being bullied out of embarrassment or fear of retaliation. However, the counselors persisted in their investigations until they were confident that they had an adequate explanation for the peer nomination.

At first, counselors interviewed students with 2 or more nominations, but then limited interviews to students who had 3 or more nominations. This was due not only to workload considerations but to the observation that many students with two nominations were not confirmed as victims.

Survey data were sent to the researchers using code numbers rather than names. A single staff member at the school served as the code master.

Previous studies have used peer nominations on the classroom level, typically in elementary schools where children are in the same classroom for a majority of the day. In secondary schools, a survey at the class level would be too narrow, because so much bullying takes place in buses, playgrounds, cafeterias, and other areas outside of class, the researchers write. A school-wide assessment can capture bullying that occurs outside the classroom.

To improve accuracy, researchers recommend that schools consider showing students an educational video about bullying prior to taking a self-report survey. Efforts to educate students and staff  on why the results of the survey are important, also could help improve accuracy, the researchers say.

“Identifying Victims of Bullying: Use of Counselor Interviews to Confirm Peer Nominations,” by Victoria Phillips and Dewey Cornell, American School Counselor Association, February 2012.

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