School District Anti-Bullying Policies: a State-Wide Content Analysis
Although all states in the United States require school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, relatively little research explores the content of bullying policies. A content analysis of anti-bullying policies from 76 school districts across the State of Louisiana was conducted. A 63-item coding scheme was developed to guide the analysis. The overall compliance to the coding framework by the Louisiana school districts considered in this study was 64%, with many policies covering logistical aspects of bullying response such as definitions, reporting, investigating, monitoring, disseminating policies, and consequences for perpetrators. While many school districts addressed evidenced-based practices and mental health support for victims and perpetrators, few school district policies addressed the use of personally owned technology, mental health support for witnesses, evaluating programs, or enumeration of vulnerable groups. There was also a noticeable gap in policies that were culturally responsive in nature. Implications are discussed for educators, policy-makers, and researchers.
KeywordsBullying Cyberbullying Anti-bullying policy School policy Content analysis
Although bullying has long been a matter of concern in the school context, the awareness of its detrimental consequences on students’ social, emotional, and physical well-being has increased over the past decades concurrent with an increasing number of schools implementing anti-bullying policies (Gower, Cousin, & Borosky, 2017; Smith, Smith, Osborn & Samara, 2008; Wang, Iannotti, & Nansel, 2009). The focus on bullying has intensified within the school context due to the increased media coverage as a direct consequence of violent school incidents (e.g., the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018) that have pointed to bullying as the underlying cause, as well as suicides among students that were linked to chronic bullying. Moreover, the concept of bullying has evolved with the expansion of research knowledge (Vivolo-Kantor, Martell, Holland, & Westby, 2014) pointing to serious and long-term effects associated with bullying behavior from both the victim and the perpetrator perspective (Stuart-Cassel, Bell, & Springer, 2011). Bullying is a controversial construct that has been defined in various ways, which can lead to a lack of conceptual clarity (Cornell & Limber, 2015). However, despite disagreement, scholars generally agree on core components that define bullying including a power imbalance between bully and victim and purposeful and repetitive aggression (Cornell & Limber, 2015; Olweus, 1993). There are many types of bullying and bullying can manifest at any age in various forms including physical, social, sexual, verbal, or emotional (Nazir & Piskin, 2015; Waseem et al., 2017).
The increased visibility of the concept of bullying in schools, social media, and research has propelled school systems as well as governments to increase their efforts in finding solutions to reduce bullying in schools through anti-bullying legislation. In 2010, the United States (U.S.) Department of Education, together with the Health and Human Services, expressed the need for more extensive information about the current status of state legislation regarding the concept of bullying and application of anti-bullying policies in order to develop laws in an effort to lower the number of bullying incidents (Robinson Vaughn, 2013). In response to this call for a more informative, comprehensive picture, the USDOE initiated an analysis of state bullying laws and policies based on 11 key components. This analysis resulted in a summary report that reviewed the current approaches among the states with anti-bullying laws and the states that have developed anti-bullying policies as models for schools (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011).
Although bullying is prevalent across the U.S., individual states vary in rates of bullying. Data obtained from the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System indicated that the State of Louisiana has the highest percentage of students bullied online, the fifth highest percentage of students traditionally bullied at school, and is ranked 32nd among all states in the quality of their anti-bullying laws (CDC, 2018; McCann, 2018). It is evident that bullying is a pervasive issue in Louisiana specifically and represents a unique context to explore the context of bullying policies. Therefore, the aim of the present study is to analyze the detailed content of the district anti-bullying policies across the State of Louisiana using the 11 key components identified by the U.S. Department of Education as well as additional literature-supported factors.
Bullying Research Across Contexts
In the U.S. and internationally, scholars have recognized bullying as a critical phenomenon that needs to be addressed. As a multi-disciplinary and complex issue, all European (and U.S.) schools experience some form of visible or hidden bullying (Elamé, 2013a). Specifically, discriminatory bullying (e.g., bullying based on ethnic origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and/or gender) has become an emerging and contemporary topic of interest for researchers and policy-makers (Elamé, 2013a, 2013b). For example, in a national study of U.S. youth, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth were more likely to experience biased-based bullying. Specifically, 67% experienced victimization due to their sexual orientation and approximately 60% reported victimization due to gender expression (Greytak, Kosciw, Villenas, & Giga, 2016). Similarly, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2013), out of 93,079 LGBT participants in the European Union, almost half of respondents (47%) reported discrimination or harassment in the previous year based on sexual orientation. Moreover, the prevalence of bullying and harassment towards ethnic minorities, migrants, and immigrants in Europe and the U.S. are a concerning issue (e.g., Downes & Cefai, 2019; Elamé, 2013b; Sulkowski, Bauman, Wright, Nixon, & Davis, 2014). Thus, bullying is not only an issue of concern among all students, but the changing demographics of schools and communities across nations have enhanced the need for an increased focus and understanding of discriminatory bullying (Downes & Cefai, 2019).
As the concern for bullying has increased, so has the need to create safe and caring school environments. Scholars have identified associations between bullying and school climate, school belonging, and social/emotional learning because unhealthy school environments increase the likelihood that bullying will occur (Espelage, Rose, & Polanin, 2015; Goldweber, Waasdorp, & Bradshaw, 2013; White, La Salle, Ashby, & Meyers, 2014). Educators and policy-makers are therefore exploring positive interventions and intentional strategies to enhance safe and inclusive school environments for all students, including students who may be particularly vulnerable to bullying victimization (e.g., Day, Ioverno, & Russell, 2019; Peguero & Bondy, 2017).
Considering the current state of bullying research and the importance of safe and inclusive school environments, Downes and Cefai (2016) highlighted a strategic framework of structural indicators to inform European policies that included curricular dimensions (e.g., social/emotional learning, homophobic bullying prevention), whole school approaches for positive school climate, teacher approaches, parent and community involvement, differentiated interventions, guiding principles (e.g., holistic approach), and coordination at the national and local level. The evidenced informed indicators highlight the complexity of addressing bullying in schools and the need for integrated and holistic policies to guide effective interventions for school bullying.
Analysis of Anti-Bullying Policies and Bullying Laws
Anti-bullying policies “influence individual and organizational behaviors” and can be seen as a tool intended to support prevention and intervention of school bullying (Hall, 2017, p. 47). Thus, policy development has been an important topic of interest for scholars, educators, and policy-makers. In the U.S., all states are required to adopt anti-bullying policies. Although this mandate has informed state policies since 2015, relatively little research thoroughly explores the content of these bullying policies and how it potentially relates to the prevalence of school bullying (Smith et al., 2008). The majority of the peer-reviewed research conducted on the content of school bullying policies stems from countries in the United Kingdom, such as England (e.g., Woods & Wolke, 2003; Smith, Smith, Osborn, & Samara, 2008; Smith, Kupferberg, Mora-Merchan, Samara, Bosley, & Osborn, 2012), Northern Ireland (e.g., Purdy, & Smith, 2016), or Wales (e.g., Epstein, Dowler, Mellor & Madden, 2006; Lambert, Scourfield, Smalley, & Jones, 2008). Overall, scholars have examined similar components of anti-bullying policies such as inclusion of the definition of bullying, enumeration of specific groups or student characteristics (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation), procedures and reporting processes, and identification of various bullying behaviors (e.g., relational, verbal, physical), with similar results across contexts. For example, Smith and colleagues (2012) identified that in general, English schools’ anti-bullying policies (N = 142) included approximately 49% of the 34-item scoring scheme, whereas Purdy and Smith (2016) identified that Irish schools’ policies (N = 100) included approximately 52% of items in a similar 36-item scoring scheme. In general, international scholars identified that many policies included a definition of bullying, despite variations in quality of definitions (e.g., Epstein et al., 2006; Purdy & Smith, 2016; Smith et al., 2012), whereas noticeable gaps were identified in enumeration of specific groups (Smith et al., 2012; Purdy & Smith, 2016) and monitoring or evaluation of policy and policy effectiveness (Epstein et al., 2006; Purdy & Smith, 2016).
Based on these criteria, one of the questions the report addressed is to what extent do the states’ bullying laws cover the U.S. Department of Education-identified key legislative and policy components? Overall, the analysis found that by 2011, 45 of the 46 states that had bullying laws directed their school districts to adopt bullying policies. Moreover, 46 states had and four states did not have bullying laws. However, in the years following, all states adopted bullying laws (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). The analysis further demonstrated that three of those 46 states banned bullying by law without defining the prohibited behavior. By 2011, thirty-six states included statements prohibiting cyberbullying or bullying using technology or electronic media (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011).
Regarding the key components of policies identified by the U.S. Department of Education, the study found that whereas the majority of the states covered the components “development and implementation of district policies, the scope of jurisdiction over bullying acts, definitions of prohibited behavior, and disciplinary consequences,” only 11 state laws covered referrals for mental health counseling (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011, p. 79). There were considerable differences between states regarding the number of components they included in legislation and the extent to which those components were addressed. Out of the 46 states with bullying legislation, only two states (Maryland and New Jersey) included provisions covering all of the key and school district components. Seventeen states covered between 13 and 16 components and 17 other states covered between 9 and 12 components. Twelve states with bullying legislation included eight (50%) or fewer components (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011).
The key components of the U.S. Department of Education have some aspects aligned with current public health models that recognize the importance of multi-level policy interventions to include universal, selected, and indicated prevention (Downes & Cefai, 2019). The three-tiered prevention approach identifies the need to support all students at the school-wide level (universal), targets students at risk (selected), and provides intensive intervention for students at the highest level of need and risk (indicated; Astor et al., 2012; Downes & Cefai, 2019). Although the U.S. Department of Education’s key components are limited in thoroughly addressing each level, they include recommendations for policy components at each tier. For example, at the universal level, the key components outline that policies should include a plan to communicate the policy to all students, families, and staff, provide training for all school staff (including aides, bus drivers, and support staff), and implement school and community-wide prevention programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). At the selected level, it is recommended that policies include enumeration of students who are at risk or have historically been targets of bullying based on characteristics such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Finally, indicated prevention is addressed through the recommendation that policies include counseling and follow-up services referrals for victims and perpetrators of bullying (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Although there is room for improvement regarding policy recommendations to more thoroughly and intentionally address bullying at all three tiers, it is promising that the key recommendations recognize the need to include a differentiated focus of bullying prevention/intervention aligned with contemporary public health models.
State of Louisiana
The report conducted by Stuart-Cassel et al. (2011) indicated that the State of Louisiana covered 11 components; however, the state did not cover the following: (a) enumerated groups, (b) district policy review, (c) definitions, and (d) mental health and legal remedies. Beyond the report from the U.S. Department of Education, the Louisiana Public Health Institute compared the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance results and the 2010 School Health Profiles Surveys. The report concluded that “student behavior with regard to bullying does not support the reports of bullying prevention policies implemented by Louisiana public schools, as students reported similar rates of what they consider bullying both on and off school property” (Louisiana Public Health Institute, 2011, p. 11), indicating that more work needs to be done in Louisiana regarding bullying prevention and intervention.
Based on the data of the CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and other reputable sources, McCann (2018) published a report summarizing the findings of their study examining the bullying prevalence and prevention in 47 States. The study compared each state across the three key dimensions: (a) bullying prevalence, (b) bullying impact and treatment, and (c) anti-bullying laws. These dimensions were measured based on 20 key metrics, ranging from “bullying incident rate” to “truancy costs for schools” to “share of high school students bullied online” with each metric rated on a 100-point scale (with 100 points indicating the highest prevalence of bullying). The study concluded that out of all states, the State of Louisiana is the state facing the biggest bullying problem in the U.S. as evidenced by having the highest percentage of students being bullied online and the fifth highest percentage of students being bullied on school property. Louisiana ranks 32nd for its anti-bullying laws and is among the states with the highest percentage of students missing school due to fear of bullying (CDC, 2018; McCann, 2018). It is evident that bullying is a pervasive issue in Louisiana specifically and represents a unique context to explore bullying prevention and intervention efforts through the content of anti-bullying policies.
Associations Between Anti-Bullying Policy Quality and Bullying Behavior
To date, there are no consistent findings regarding the content of anti-bullying policies and the prevalence of bullying. Some researchers found that less comprehensive anti-bullying policies and programs in schools were associated with higher rates of physical and verbal victimization of students (Ordonez, 2006). Other scholars indicated that policy quality was positively related to bullying, as schools or districts with high-quality anti-bullying policies had higher rates of bullying victimization or relational bullying than schools or districts with low policy quality (Gower, Cousin, & Borowski, 2017; Woods & Wolke, 2003). Nevertheless, specific elements of anti-bullying policies, such as protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity, are associated with lower rates of anti-LGBTQ bullying and more positive perceptions of the school climate (Day et al., 2019; Hall, 2017; Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, & Boesen, 2014), which suggests that the inclusion of specific components of anti-bullying policies may be of particular importance.
In general, more non-significant than significant associations between policy presence/quality and student bullying were found in a systematic review of the empirical research (Hall, 2017). Thus, despite the suggested role of policies in preventing and intervening in bullying situations and their widespread adoption and application, studies examining this link are rare and include mixed findings (Hall, 2017; Smith et al., 2008). Therefore, assessing the content of anti-bullying policies is a foundational step that may lay the groundwork for future research to clarify potential links between anti-bullying policies, specific policy content, and bullying behaviors.
The minimal research conducted within the U.S. consistently identified the State of Louisiana among the lowest-ranking states regarding the quality of schools’ anti-bullying policies (Weaver et al., 2013) as well as among the highest-ranking states regarding the prevalence of bullying (McCann, 2018). Many states, including Louisiana, have expanded bullying legislation to respond to emerging issues related to cyberbullying (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011). In order to keep up with the expansion of policies, an updated, thorough content analysis of the current policies within the State of Louisiana is warranted.
The Present Study
To what degree do district anti-bullying policies in the State of Louisiana represent the U.S. Department of Education anti-bullying policy key components?
To what degree do district anti-bullying policies in the State of Louisiana represent promising practices of bullying prevention and intervention as outlined in peer-reviewed related research?
Anti-bullying policies were obtained in 2018 through 2019 from 76 public school districts and charter schools across the State of Louisiana. Louisiana was chosen as a focal state because at the time of this report it was among the highest-ranking states regarding the prevalence of bullying (CDC, 2018; McCann, 2018). A member of the research team compiled an initial list of public school districts (n = 70) and charter schools and/or specialty schools (n = 8) in the State of Louisiana which included 78 educational agencies. Once the list was compiled, copies of anti-bullying policies were obtained from publicly available information on individual school district websites (N = 76). The remaining two policies were not included because they were not publicly available. Specifically, one school district was a legislative attempt to support school reforms after Hurricane Katrina and has since disbanded. The remaining district (a rural school district) did not have a publicly available policy. Attempts were made by phone to obtain the missing policy, but they did not respond. The research team looked for both bullying and cyberbullying policies, which were often integrated in one policy. If there were separate policies, the content was coded inclusively to encompass the content of both policies.
It is important to note that the Louisiana Department of Education provides a model state policy that was created in 2012 for school districts to utilize and adapt. Since the creation and publication of this document, state statutes and federal guidelines have changed and individual districts have updated their policies, though there is no indication that the state’s model policy has changed. As such, the majority of districts (n = 47) used a consultation company repository for district policies that appear to regularly adapt the documents based on state and federal policy updates. The remaining districts self-managed anti-bullying policies directly on their website and/or in parent/student handbooks.
In order to answer the identified research questions, a descriptive content analysis was conducted as the research methodology. The research team developed and operationalized definitions and categories using a codebook as recommended by Neuendorf (2002). Similar to the analysis of state policies by Stuart-Cassell and colleagues (2011), the a priori codebook was guided by the U.S. Department of Education’s framework of key anti-bullying policy components. Additionally, the research team conducted a comprehensive literature review and added other factors and definitions to the codebook that represented promising practices of bullying intervention and prevention as outlined in the peer-reviewed literature. The coding scheme included a focus on both bullying and cyberbullying policies. The final coding scheme consisted of 18 overarching categories (see Fig. 2) with subsequent sub-categories, totaling 63 items. Using these codes, the research team consisting of one assistant professor, two postdoctoral research scholars, a first-year doctoral research assistant, and a master’s level graduate assistant coded all 76 policies.
Further revisions to the coding schema took place after two consecutive pilot coding of a random sample of policies. The first pilot coding included a trial coding of six policies and the second round of coding included a pilot coding of five policies. During the piloting process, the research team made initial modifications and revisions to the coding scheme to enhance definitional clarity in the codebook and ensure that all categories were comprehensive, while also being mutually exclusive. During the pilot, coding exercises reached an inter-rater reliability between 0.49 and 0.86. After the piloting process was completed, an analysis of all remaining policies was conducted; “yes” was indicated if the identified item was included in the policy and “no” was indicated if it was not included. In order to increase rigor in the process, two research team members independently coded each anti-bullying policy into Qualtrics, an electronic data collection tool. Inter-rater reliability was between 0.78 and 0.93 based upon the group coding the policy, which was substantial to almost perfect agreement across all items (McHugh, 2012). In order to address any discrepancies and determine final coding for each policy, each of the two research team members collaboratively discussed any discrepancies in their coding in order to reach final consensus. They consulted with the other two research team members as needed.
In total, 76 policies were coded and included in the final analysis. The overall compliance to the coding framework by all of the Louisiana school districts considered in this study was 64%. The greatest compliance to the coding framework correlated with the criteria from the U.S. Department of Education’s key components. The majority of districts and schools developed their policies in accordance with the Louisiana Department of Education’s publicly available model policy for bullying prevention. Specifically, one district used the model policy exactly as originally written, and 82.9% (n = 63) of the policies were adaptations of the state’s model policy. The remaining 15.8% of districts and schools (n = 12) utilized a distinct policy. The majority of the distinct policies belonged to the eight specialty and charter school policies reviewed (n = 6, 75%).
Research Question 1: Representation of U.S. Department of Education’s Key Anti-Bullying Policy Components
When considering the evidence of the 11 U.S. Department of Education’s key components for anti-bullying policies, there were a number of key categories that the majority of school districts clearly outlined in their policies. Policies were most likely to include a clear purpose statement outlining the detrimental effects of bullying (n = 75, 98.7%) and indicated that all forms of bullying will be taken seriously (n = 72) and are unacceptable (n = 73). Similarly, the majority of policies included a clear statement of the scope of the policy to include school activities on or off campus (n = 75), bullying via technology (n = 75), and bullying on busses or other school-related transportation (n = 73). Every policy included a clear definition of bullying (n = 76), while 81.6% (n = 62) included a clear cyberbullying definition. Additionally, statements of scope most often included addressing forms of bullying behavior such as retaliation for reporting bullying (n = 66), perpetuating bullying (n = 67), and behaviors that disrupt the school environment (n = 74). Interestingly, in regard to cyberbullying, only 5.3% of schools (n = 4) specifically mentioned student’s use of personally owned technology, although 68.4% (n = 52) mentioned the inappropriate use of school-owned technology.
Analysis by criteria 1–4 for the State of Louisiana (N = 76)
1. Purpose statement
All forms of bullying are unacceptable
All incidents taken seriously
2. Statement of scope
School activities and events (regardless of location )
Specifically mentions personally owned technology
Specifically mentions school-owned technology
Disruption to school environment
Retaliation for reporting an act of bullying
Perpetuating bullying (e.g., actively engaging, spreading rumors, encouraging the perpetrator, forwarding offensive e-mails or text messages) any mentioned not all (participating not by-standing
Knowing but not actively bullying (passive-bystander)
3. Enumeration of specific characteristics or populations
Acts based on actual or perceived characteristics of students
List historical bullied groups (e.g., racial and ethnic)
List vulnerable groups (e.g., LGBTQ, low SES, religious minority students etc.)
Groups not named based on any particular characteristic
4. Definition bullying and cyberbullying
Analysis by criteria 5–8 for the State of Louisiana
5. Report bullying and cyberbullying
Contact information to report (e.g., principal)
Handle in a timely fashion indicated
Indicates protection from retaliation
6. Investigating and responding to bullying and records
Investigation procedure considered timely
Communicates with parents (victim)
Communicates with parents (perpetrator)
Communicates with parents (not designated victim or perpetuator)
Ensures a written record would be kept
7. Consequences and sanctions
Consequences for offenders
Details consequence for repeat offenders
Outlines sanctions for perpetrators
8. Referrals for counseling and mental health
Indicates referral procedure (victim)
Indicates referral procedure (perpetrator)
Indicates referral procedure (others)
Analysis by criteria 9–12 for the State of Louisiana
9. Transparency and monitoring policies
County indicates review policy (e.g., time, clarity)
Further indicates overseer of compliance (e.g., person)
Report to DOE (state) annually
Publicly available information (i.e., statistics)
Indicates compliance required metrics
10. Communication plan
Provides a school marketing plan indicating bullying is prohibited
Provides a plan to disseminate bullying policies to students, families, school staff (e.g., required orientation; written notice to student’s parents)
11. Training and preventive education
Indicates training plan (prevention, identification, and response) for all school staff (support, faculty, school bus drivers) (1)
Indicates training plan (prevention, identification, and response) for volunteers (2)
Indicates training plan (prevention, identification, and response) for law enforcement (3)
Evidence of age-appropriate bullying prevention programs for students (4)
12. Statement of rights to other legal recourse
Includes a statement that the policy does not preclude victims from seeking other legal remedies
Research Question 2: Representation of Promising Practices as Outlined by the Literature
Analysis by criteria 13–18 (promising practices) for the State of Louisiana
13. Support for victims and perpetrators (procedural: confidentiality, report protected, and retribution)
Does the policy address support for victims?
Does the policy address support for perpetrator?
Does the policy address support for reporters?
Does the policy address support for non-victims (e.g., bystanders, friends)?
14. Emotional Support for victims and perpetrators (guilt, mental health, and counseling)
Does the policy address support for victims?
Does the policy address support for perpetrator?
Does the policy address support for reporters?
Does the policy address support for non-victims (e.g., bystanders, friends)?
15. Evidence-based practices in policy
16. Methods that measure program effectiveness
17. COMMUNITY INCLUDED IN POLICY
Other school community members (volunteers, school visitors)
Outside school community members (organizations, e.g., family services, agencies)
18. Culturally responsive policies
Similarly, most policies identified the need for emotional support for victims and perpetrators. Emotional support was operationally defined by indicating the need for mental health and counseling support for those involved in a bullying incident. The promising practice of emotional support differentiated from the U.S. Department of Education’s key component of mental health referral because mental health referral indicated that the policy outlined specific referral procedures (i.e., who makes the referral for mental health, who should be contacted, or when referrals should be made). The majority of policies included language addressing mental health support for victims (n = 59, 77.6%) and perpetrators (n = 68, 89.5%). Interestingly, none of the policies mentioned emotional support for reporters or non-victims (e.g., friends, bystanders, witnesses of a bullying incidents).
Community support was operationally defined as mentioning or identifying collaboration or communication with specific community members (i.e., parents are notified, school volunteers are encouraged to report bullying incidents, referrals to law enforcement are made). Nearly all policies mentioned collaboration or communication with parents (n = 75, 98.7%), and the majority included collaboration with law enforcement (n = 65) and school community members such as volunteers or school visitors (n = 62). In contrast, a little over half of the policies mentioned collaboration with outside community members such as organizations, family services, or community agencies (n = 44). Regarding the inclusion of evidenced-based practices such as an evidenced-based prevention program, a training program, or bullying interventions overall, a moderate number of policies included some mention of evidenced-based practices (n = 55).
Finally, the remaining two overarching categories identified as promising practices (i.e., methods to measure program effectiveness, cultural responsiveness) appeared rarely, if at all, across all policies. No policies indicated specific methods to measure program effectiveness for bullying prevention or intervention programs. As identified previously as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s key components, although several policies described a training plan for school staff (n = 58) and an age-appropriate bullying prevention program for students (n = 47), none of the policies indicated the need for evaluation methods to monitor and track program effectiveness through assessing student perceptions, tracking bullying referrals, or qualitative observations. Lastly, and perhaps most notably, only one policy was identified as being culturally responsive. Culturale responsiveness was operationally defined as including specific language around sensitivity to diversity in any aspect of the policy from response, reporting, investigations, and within the written policy itself.
Discussion and Implications for Practice
The findings of the present study indicated a trend towards school districts’ anti-bullying policies including logistical reporting, investigating, and monitoring components of the response to bullying. The majority of the policies outlined how reports and investigation procedures should be handled, documented, and communicated with parents, including clear consequences and sanctions for perpetrators. Similarly, most school district policies tended to focus on outlining the purpose and scope of the policy, highlighting that multiple forms of bullying will be taken seriously and are unacceptable at school- or school-related events. Additionally, most policies included a specific plan to disseminate the bullying policy to students, families, and staff and a little over two thirds of the policies included a formal statement that victims had the right to pursue legal remedies beyond the consequences determined to be appropriate by the school district. Considering the release of the U. S Department of Education’s identification of the 11 key components of anti-bullying policies and laws in 2010 (see Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011), it may be that many school districts have incorporated the 11 key components and guidelines of the logistical aspects of bullying response. More specifically, the most common legislation across states regarding bullying is the requirement for school districts to develop policies that outlined the scope, behaviors, and consequences of bullying behaviors, with procedural aspects most likely to involve specific mandates (Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011). It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of districts in Louisiana had similar format and wording that were comparable to the Louisiana state model policy covering specific aspects of a bullying definition, response, investigation, and monitoring procedures. Since the majority of policies outlined logistics of the appropriate response to bullying, it may suggest that school districts are attempting to protect themselves from litigation (Robinson-Vaughn, 2013). School districts seem to be adhering to the state model and legislation requirements to ensure that the scope of bullying behaviors and appropriate district responses are covered in writing.
Whereas the majority of policies conjointly addressed both bullying and cyberbullying behaviors and definitions, only 5.4% of the policies specifically mentioned student’s inappropriate use of personally owned technology. Policies may not have mentioned personally owned technologies because at the time of policy development, some schools may have prohibited students from bringing devises to school and many of the policies followed the state model policy that was developed in 2012. Only about 23% of the 77% of teens that owned a phone in 2012 had a smartphone, and it was more likely that teens had a phone that only had texting capabilities (Pew Research, 2012). Conversely, in 2018, about 95% of teens had access to or owned a smartphone (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). Since technology has expanded traditional school boundaries into a borderless world where cyberbullying can reach students at any time (Diamanduros, Downs, & Jenkins, 2008), personally owned technology is a vehicle that can easily be used to target victims with ramifications impacting students during and beyond the school day. However, few policies specifically addressed student’s inappropriate use of their own technological devices. This gap highlights the need for updated policies to more clearly outline the scope of cyberbullying behaviors and associated school responses.
Regarding non-procedural components, the majority of district policies addressed referrals for counseling and the need to provide emotional support for both victims and perpetrators. This finding is encouraging considering that an analysis of Louisiana anti-bullying policies conducted in 2013 found that nearly 93% of district policies did not incorporate or address mental health support for either the perpetrator or the victim (Robinson-Vaughn, 2013). Scholars recognize the psychological impact of bullying (see Fisher, Cassidy, & Mitchell, 2017; Menesini & Salmivalli, 2017), and there is a need for schools to support the underlying emotional needs of students involved in bullying incidents. When considering support strategies, it is important to identify a student’s role in bullying and target interventions appropriately. The manifestation of mental health concerns may differ according to the type of experience students have as either a bully, victim, or bully-victim. Compared with students who are not involved in bullying, victims may demonstrate more internalizing issues (e.g., withdrawn, anxious/depressed), bullies may demonstrate higher externalizing concerns (e.g., delinquent and aggressive behavior), and bully-victims may be at the highest risk for mental health problems demonstrating higher social problems as well as internalizing and externalizing issues (Kozasa, Oiji, Kioyta, Sawa, & Kim, 2017). Thus, counselors need to first identify the student’s experiences related to bullying and target interventions to effectively meet their needs. For example, if a student is a bully-victim, support strategies might include psychoeducation regarding appropriate social skills and teaching coping strategies for both externalized and internalized mental health concerns.
In contrast, it is interesting to note that no policies in our current analysis addressed counseling or emotional support for witnesses or reporters of bullying behaviors, which is concerning as some researchers have found that students who observe bullying in school are at risk for mental health concerns or psychosocial consequences (Lambe, Hudson, Craig, & Pepler, 2017; Rivers, Poteat, Noret, & Ashurst, 2009). Thus, additional interventions and mental health support for witnesses may be important to address by school personnel (Rivers et al., 2009) and in future policies and training programs.
In regard to additional non-procedural components of the policies, there is a noticeable gap in policies enumerating specific vulnerable groups and being culturally responsive in nature. Approximately 76% of policies did not mention that bullying was prohibited based on targeting particular student characteristics or vulnerable populations. Only a few policies prohibited or outlined bullying behaviors against historically bullied, vulnerable, or exceptional student populations. These results echo findings from international contexts identifying that similar gaps in policy content exist (e.g., Purdy & Smith, 2016; Smith et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2012). This is surprising considering the increasing awareness of discriminatory bullying and recognition that student characteristics may increase their risk for being bullied, such as students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), children with varying abilities, refugees, or students who belong to a minority group (Elamé, 2013b; Menesini & Salmivalli, 2017; Swearer et al., 2010; Waseem et al., 2017). Moreover, despite research suggesting that overall policy presence/quality may not be significantly associated with bullying prevalence, scholars have identified that anti-bullying policies that specifically outline protection for students based on their gender identity and sexual orientation lesson the likelihood of victimization for these students and lead to higher rates of adult intervention (Hall, 2017; Kosciw et al., 2014). Thus, the inclusion of protection for vulnerable students is a critical component of anti-bullying policies and may be one of the limited situations in which policies are associated with lower victimization. It is therefore unfortunate that the majority of anti-bullying policies did not incorporate or prohibit bullying behaviors against specific student characteristics in an effort to intentionally protect vulnerable groups of students. Moreover, contextualizing this finding within a differentiated prevention approach, the lack of enumeration of historically bullied groups echoes the “need for a stronger understanding and focus of selected (race, disability, sexual orientation) and indicated prevention levels” (Downes & Cefai, 2019, p. 511). If the majority of district policies do not specifically prohibit bullying behaviors against historically bullied, vulnerable, or exceptional student populations, how can we expect staff and students to be vigilant about protecting and supporting students who are at a greater risk for bullying?
Similarly, only one policy was coded as being culturally responsive in nature. The one policy that was coded as exhibiting culturally responsive practices can be held up as an exemplar. This policy provided specific examples of prohibited bullying behaviors based on individual student characteristics (i.e., ethnicity, varying ability) in an effort to illustrate how bullying can violate federal civil rights laws. Additionally, the policy itself was written to address issues of accessibility for all students and families. For example, the policy specifically stated that the school board must disseminate information about the policy and bullying procedures in a way that is accessible for those who may have limited English proficiency or disabilities (Sabine Parish Schools, 2018-2019). It is evident that the school board intentionally incorporated cultural sensitivity in both the scope of prohibited bullying and accessibility of the policy itself. Given the promising practice of culturally responsive bully prevention and interventions (Huddleston, Varjas, Meyers, & Cadenhead, 2011), there is a need for anti-bullying policies to incorporate cultural sensitivity.
Of the additional non-procedural components of the policies, there was an interesting contrast between the inclusion of evidenced-based practices and the lack of mention regarding monitoring and/or evaluating training or prevention program effectiveness. The majority of the policies mentioned the incorporation of evidenced-based training or prevention programs for either staff or students. However, none of the policies outlined the need for methods to measure program effectiveness through student perceptions, behavioral referrals, observations, or other means. While it is encouraging that districts are starting to recognize the importance of incorporating promising practices into training and prevention efforts, it is recommended that schools intentionally assess, monitor, and evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts in schools in order to understand which programs are most effective, particularly since the effectiveness of bullying interventions may vary based on location and context (Gaffney, Farrington, & Ttofi, 2019; Mendez-Baldwin, 2019; NAEM, 2016). Considering that only half of the policies specifically incorporated evidence-based practices, there is not only a need to increase the focus on evidence-based practices, but also include evaluation components to measure the effectiveness of programs put in place.
The presence of a policy is necessary but is not sufficient to affect student behavior. Indeed, after a policy has been adopted, it must be put into practice. The mere adoption or presence of a policy does not mean that it will be immediately and consistently put into practice exactly as intended. (Hall, 2017, p. 57)
Therefore, policy-makers should focus on communication and implementation efforts. It is important to find effective ways to share the expectations outlined in anti-bullying policies with students, staff, and parents and continuously evaluate implementation in order to translate policy into practice. Moreover, researchers could examine promising practices in regard to the dissemination of bullying policies to ensure that teachers and students not only receive but understand the content of policies.
Future Research Directions
Research investigating the relationship between anti-bullying school policies and the prevalence of bullying among students is rare (Smith et al., 2008). Anti-bullying policies might be effective at reducing bullying if their content is based on evidence and sound theory and if they are implemented with a high level of fidelity. However, more research is needed to improve on the limitations among extant studies, specifically research that goes beyond cross-section data, convenience sampling, and bivariate analyses (Hall, 2017). There is a need for scholars to explore potential causal links between implementation of anti-bullying policies and a decrease in bullying incidents and behavior. Given the mixed results in existing studies (see Hall, 2017), it is still unknown if school anti-bullying policies are effective at lowering rates of bullying incidents and increasing educator intervention. Since research supports that the inclusion of specific aspects of anti-bullying policies (e.g., enumeration of specific groups) may be associated with lower victimization and more positive perceptions of school climate (Day et al., 2019; Kosciw et al., 2014; Hall, 2017), a closer examination of the relationship between specific components of anti-bullying policies and bullying behavior (beyond generalized overall quality) is warranted. Law, policy, and research can be used to prevent undesirable behaviors such as bullying among youth (Rivara, & Le Menestrel, 2016). Thus, research that enhances our understanding of the potential connections between anti-bullying policies, policy implementation, and bullying incidents will enhance prevention and intervention efforts.
There is also a need to explore the content and effectiveness of anti-bullying policies across various states, regions, and countries. The U.S. Department of Education directs educational agencies to collaboratively develop policies with all stakeholders including students, families, community, and school staff to meet the needs of local areas (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Scholars have identified that the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs may vary based on culture and regional implementation (Gaffney et al., 2019). Similarly, there is a need to explore if cultural differences exist in the content of anti-bullying policies and the unique features that may be important to include in order to enhance policy effectiveness across various countries and regions. Although more research is needed, gaining an understanding of the content of anti-bullying policies in one state can help us take a step forward in bridging policy research and bully prevention practice.
This study takes a step forward in understanding the current state of anti-bullying policies in Louisiana; however, there are several limitations that should be noted. First, the present study only reported on policies from one state in the U.S. As previously described, we specifically chose Louisiana due to the high number of reported bullying incidents. However, this study cannot claim to be representative of school districts across the U.S. or internationally. Although the U.S. Department of Education provided guidance for states on anti-bullying policies, states vary in the degree to which they cover the key recommendations; more comprehensive legislation often relates to more comprehensive district policies (see Stuart-Cassel et al., 2011). Thus, it is likely that bullying policies in districts across states will vary. Although the majority of policies in the current analysis adapted and modified the Louisiana state model policy, potentially limiting the variance and generalizability of findings, the majority of states have developed model anti-bullying policies for school districts to follow (Stuart-Cassell et al., 2011). Thus, Louisiana is not unlike other states who have created a model framework for districts to follow. Although generalizability is limited, the contextual framework from this study outlines recommendations for specific components that may be important to include in anti-bullying policies (e.g., U. S. Department of Education’s key components, research-supported promising practices), which is valuable information for policy-makers across contexts. Second, district and school policies may have altered since the completion of data collection. One such change that is known to have occurred is the addition of a policy pertaining specifically to threats of terrorism and/or violence that resulted from a state statute revision in 2018. The change occurred in the summer of 2018, prior to data collection, but was not yet published into publicly available policies at that time. With frequent policy revisions occurring, additional revisions to the policies made following the period of policy review cannot be accounted in the present study. Finally, the content analysis ratings did not evaluate the overall quality of the integration of our contextual framework; rather, the focus included the dichotomous presence or absence of each categorical criteria. Although this study provided an overall picture of the current State of Louisiana school district policies, this rating criteria may have missed the degree to which each policy included various components and ultimately overlooked nuances that may have existed between policies. Despite these limitations, the data presented highlights the overall strengths and areas of growth for policies in Louisiana that we believe have valuable implications for educators and researchers.
We provided an updated content analysis of the state of anti-bully policies in Louisiana in an effort to understand how policies compare to U.S. Department of Education recommendations and research-supported promising practices. As the current study considered the strengths and limitations of the content explored in anti-bullying policies, it is evident that many districts have begun to include basic and procedural components such as a definition, investigation, and response procedures. However, many policies are limited in regard to their incorporation of some non-procedural components and promising practices such as cultural responsiveness, monitoring and evaluating, and mental health support for witnesses. Anti-bullying policies have taken steps forward since the dissemination of recommendations for legislation and policies; however, more work needs to be done to incorporate evidence-based practices and non-procedural components for bully response in schools in order to advocate for and support all students.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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