In Beth Lehr's 21 years as an educator, she estimates she's handled only four cases of "true bullying." But the assistant principal at Sahuarita High School in Arizona and her staff regularly address "not nice" student actions and exchanges.
Even when those don't rise to the level of bullying, each incident is taken seriously with the goal of building and supporting a healthier relationship with the students involved, according to Lehr. "Every situation is unique. There's no one answer," she said.
"That's the hard part of anything in education, especially in administration," Lehr said. "There is no one size fits all."
As educators, parents, policymakers and others seek out solutions to school violence, efforts at bullying prevention and response are often cited as one approach to prevent tragic incidents like mass school shootings.
While there is not one specific approach that can address all bullying situations, secondary school administrators who spoke to K-12 Dive said their school communities first work hard to build positive cultures and relationships. Staff also dig into the details of any allegation of bullying, listen to both sides of the conflict, add measures to prevent repeated unwelcome behaviors, and work toward resolutions that help the students involved feel safe.
Ashland Middle School, Ashland, Oregon
The top priority for the 500-student Ashland Middle School is to create an environment that is physically and emotionally safe, said Assistant Principal Katherine Holden.
That includes preventative measures like setting schoolwide expectations for kindness and respect in the grade 6-8 school, as well as having in-depth investigative procedures for when unkind and hurtful behavior occurs, said Holden, who was named 2022 Oregon Assistant Principal of the Year by the Oregon Association of Secondary School Administrators.
"[The] number one priority is making sure that students feel safe at Ashland Middle School, and that they understand the adults will help them resolve conflict or do something if we hear, if we know, or if we see something being done that's unkind," Holden said.
The school's response to unkind behavior happens even if the event involving students took place off campus or outside school hours.
"We want to make sure that there's nothing that's getting in the way of them being on campus and being comfortable and feeling safe," Holden said.
When investigating an incident, school staff will try to obtain as much information as possible, including talking to those who may have witnessed the behavior and getting tangible information like screenshots of online postings. Those efforts help staff quickly understand the situation and speak with those involved, she said.
The school works with the reporting student on a plan for making the situation better. The student who used unkind or hurtful behavior is asked to take responsibility for their actions and to follow a plan to make better decisions going forward. Holden adds that a lot of effort is made to maintain the autonomy of the reporting student.
"The main point is we want to make sure that the person takes accountability for their actions, is reflective about their actions, and then understands that moving forward, we have an expectation that they're going to act differently and treat their peers in a kind, respectful way," Holden said.
The approach is the same even if the event appears to be a smaller offense that, for instance, hurts someone's feelings.
"Those are things that we take very seriously because we want our student population to know that if something's making them feel uncomfortable, or unsafe at school, we're going to take that seriously and we're going to fix it, we want to resolve it," Holden said.
The school community intentionally teaches about the value of diversity and inclusion and how to respond to microaggressions, among other lessons. Staff purposefully create a positive school climate by greeting every student in the morning and rewarding students for doing kind acts.
"That culture of kindness … appreciating diversity, appreciating each other, being inclusive in our activities is really a foundational part," Holden said.
Sahuarita High School, Sahuarita, Arizona
Investing in building trust is a top focus for the Sahuarita High School community in building a positive school climate and preventing bullying, said Lehr. This means creating trust among faculty and school staff in administrators, and trust among students in teachers.
One effort toward this is making sure all 1,100 students in the grade 9-12 school have at least one person on campus they can talk to comfortably. Staff ensure this by using a chart to mark which students they have connections with. If a student doesn't have a connection, staff will work on making sure someone employed at the school — a bus driver, class aide, custodian, teacher or administrator — builds a relationship with that student, Lehr said.
The school works to create positive relationships with parents, so if parents notice their child is struggling at home, staff can help support that student at school, according to Lehr.
If there is a bullying or harassment incident, Lehr said the school quickly investigates to try to discover the root cause for the unwanted behavior.
And if bullying did occur, the school takes decisive action to discipline the student making the offense, Lehr said. The school will also work with families to find supports for that student so they don't repeat unwanted behaviors.
The school has very few repeat offenders, she added.
More often, it's listening to individual student concerns or frustrations and problem-solving with them, she said. Informal mediation sessions are sometimes used to resolve conflicts.
The school has a process for checking in with students who seem upset, and for supporting students demonstrating unwanted behaviors, Lehr said.
This work is helped by the fact that the school has had the same administration team for the past four years, she said. "We've been able to build that consistency, and I think that that really speaks to the culture that we've built as a whole."
The school proactively provides lessons to all students on building healthy relationships, recognizing unhealthy relationships and how to find supports. Continual emphasis on digital citizenship is also a focus, even though these are high school students who have been taught these skills since elementary school, Lehr said.
What advice does Lehr have for other administrators? Take time to listen to students' concerns, even if you're in the middle of thousands of other tasks. "I have found that every time, that kid has to take priority," she said.
Haines City Senior High School, Haines City, Florida
Principal Adam Lane, who has led the 3,000-student school for the past seven years, said incidences of bullying are "very minimal" — but when they do arise, they are addressed immediately.
The school's capacity to address situations of unkind behaviors and other challenges grew in the past seven years as the grade 9-12 school adopted a positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, model. PBIS approaches integrate student and staff behavior expectations throughout the community and intentionally celebrates and rewards people for meeting those expectations, Lane said.
Rewards can include tickets to purchase items in the school store and admission to special events, such as last month's discussion and music session with Lane and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat whose district includes Haines City.
Appreciating staff and student accomplishments and supporting positive relationships can boost confidence in the school community to address challenges, such as resolving student conflicts, and making improvements, he said.
Lane added that some may think PBIS models are just for elementary or middle schools — his school is one of 18 PBIS-certified high schools in Florida — but "the high school kids love it," he said.
He began the PBIS-model adoption by "sprinkling" his campus with positivity. During morning announcements, he would highlight students' achievements, not just for classroom or athletic feats but for everyday efforts, such as performing well on tests and helping make the school campus be a welcoming place.
Lane started writing personalized emails to each of the school's 245 staff members on their birthdays. The messages included photos of activities and items important to that staff member.
Additionally, the school created a Parent University where parents can learn from teachers, counselors and administrators on ways to support their child, including using PBIS strategies at home.
Together, those efforts contributed to the school moving from the second-highest discipline rate in Polk County School District in 2015 to the second-lowest rate by 2017, Lane said.
As discipline referrals went down, teacher retention went up, he said, because "what teacher doesn't want to come work at a school where you're constantly celebrating positive behavior?"