Press Release

Results of a survey of U.S. secondary students reveals a high level of ineffectiveness of staff responses to hurtful situations (bullying), insight into the primary causes of hurtful behavior, & evidence of positive values help by the majority of students

EMBARGOED Until February 9, 2016
Contact: Nancy Willard
Cell: 541-556-1145

A national survey of 1,549 secondary students on bullying and hurtful behavior was conducted by Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in October 2015. Students were asked questions about hurtful incidents. The definition provided for “hurtful” included bullying, as well as other hurtful behaviors.

The survey findings reveal ineffective staff responses to hurtful incidents and indicate that this failure is grounded in school policies and approaches that misunderstand primary causes of hurtful behavior, as well as the expectations and goals of students.

The survey findings also document the positive values held by the vast majority of students and clearly indicate the desire of students to foster positive relations and to address hurtful situations in a restorative manner.

The implication of this survey is that the approaches to bullying that schools are encouraged or required to implement must be fundamentally altered in order to improve effectiveness by reflecting the actual circumstances and dynamics of potentially hurtful situations and by more effectively responding to the underlying concerns of the students.

Key Findings Regarding Staff Effectiveness, Student Reporting & the Nature of Hurtful Behavior

This survey asked students how frequently someone was hurtful to them, how upset they were, and how effective they felt in getting the hurtful situation to stop.

Based on the responses to these three questions, students who were More Vulnerable were identified. These students were those experienced someone being hurtful to them once or twice a week or almost daily, were upset or very upset, and felt that it was very difficult or they were powerless to get this to stop.

Students who reported someone was hurtful were also asked how staff members, if present, responded and whether things got better, stayed the same, or got worse.

Students were also asked whether they told a staff member and, if so, whether things got better, stayed the same, or got worse. If they did not tell a staff member, they were asked why they did not do so.

Briefly, the key findings regarding staff effectiveness and hurtful behavior are:

•   Nine percent (9%) of students were identified as More Vulnerable. Based on an estimated population of 25,000,000 U.S secondary students, 9% equates to 2,250,000 students. Given the sample size, there is a 3% margin of error.

•   From the perspective of the More Vulnerable students, staff members were present 69% of the time. Afterwards, things reportedly got better only 13% of the time, stayed the same 47% of the time, and got worse 45% of the time.

•   Only 36% of the More Vulnerable students talked with a staff member at school and when they did things got better only 30% of the time, stayed the same 45% of the time, and got worse 25% of the time.

•   Those who did not report indicated they did not do so because they did not think a school staff member would do anything to help or they feared this would make things worse, they they probably deserved to be treated like this, they would be blamed, or that the hurtful student would retaliate.

•   Eighty-one percent (81%) of students who reported they were “frequently” hurtful and 69% students who were “ever” hurtful also reported someone was hurtful to them. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of More Vulnerable students also reported they had been hurtful. Being hurt is the risk factor. Being hurtful is the outcome.

The current approach that schools are encouraged, or required by state statute, to implement to reduce bullying views bullying as an act of defiance against the authority of the school. This approach is focused on establishing rules against bullying, requiring staff to stop bullying if they witness this occurring, establishing reporting systems for students to report these hurtful incidents, and punishing those who are hurtful.

The current approach also focuses solely on incidents of “bullying,” which excludes other forms of hurtful behavior. “Bullying” is defined in entirely different ways in the guidance provided to educators, as compared to definitions in state statutes.

The evidence from this survey documents a high level of ineffectiveness in staff responses to hurtful incidents, whether witnessed or reported, and that only a minority of students report these hurtful incidents to staff. The evidence also demonstrates that many of these hurtful incidents involve what appears to be bidirectional cycles of hurtful acts–a hurtful response to being treated badly.

In sum, the evidence from this survey demonstrates that the approach that schools are encouraged or required by statute to implement to address bullying is generally ineffective in responding to the hurtful incidents experienced by students.

Clearly, it is necessary for schools to rethink how they are seeking to reduce bullying and other hurtful incidents and how staff respond when such hurtful incidents are witnessed or reported.

Key Findings Regarding Student Norms and Values

Students were asked about their norms and values related to bullying and their insight into why they would not engage in hurtful behavior, how to effectively respond to hurtful situations, and their thoughts on stepping in to help when they witness hurtful situations. Students who reported they were hurtful or someone was hurtful to them also were asked followup questions.

Briefly, the key findings regarding student norms, values, and experiences are:

•   The vast majority of students disapprove of their peers being hurtful to others.

•   Students admire those who are kind and respectful to others, step in to help if they witness hurtful situations, respond to hurtful situations in a positive way, and stop themselves and strive to remedy the harm.

•   Students do not admire those who support others being hurtful, laugh when they see hurtful situations, create hurtful drama to get attention, or think it is “cool” to denigrate others.

•   Students most highly approve responses to hurtful situations that reflect a high amount of personal power , as well as personal responsibility, such as apologizing if they have been hurtful.

•   The most important reason students indicated they would not be hurtful was how they would feel if someone did this to them.

•   Students describe those who step in to help with such words as: Brave, Kind, Hero, Nice, Courageous, and Caring.

•   The majority of students indicated that when they witnessed a hurtful situation, they stepped in to help. However, those who were treated badly reported a much lower level of receiving assistance from peers.

•   The key barriers students identified to stepping in to help were not knowing what they could do and their perspective that the social norms at the school would not support such intervention.

•   The two top reasons students provided for being hurtful were that they acted fast without thinking and the person had been hurtful to them or a friend–impulsive behavior and retaliation. As noted, being hurtful in response to someone being hurtful to them was validated with other data.

•   All students appear to mixed feelings about retaliation, that is, they think retaliation may be an appropriate response in some circumstances. They also think that those who are treated badly should immediately respond. This insight is of significant interest, because it appears that reducing impulsive retaliation–and peer support thereof–could result in a significant improvement in student relations.

These survey findings support the conclusion that students should be empowered as leaders in the efforts to foster positive relations and reduce hurtful behaviors in their schools and specifically require support greater support in self-regulation and avoiding retaliation. Fortunately, there are research proven approaches to address both of these issues.

About Embrace Civility in the Digital Age

Embrace Civility in the Digital Age promotes a 21st Century approach to address hurtful youth behavior.  This approach promotes the positive values held by young people, empowers young people with effective skills and resiliency, and encourages young people to be helpful allies who positively intervene when they witness peers being hurt or at risk. This approach also focuses on increasing the effectiveness of adults in supporting young people and effectively responding to the hurtful incidents that occur.


Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., Director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, brings a background of working with emotionally challenged students, law, and digital technologies to the challenge of fostering positive relations in the digital age. Nancy is the author of the first book ever published on cyberbullying, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats (2007). She is the author of several other books and frequently contributed articles to publications for educators, such as District Administration.

Embrace Civility in the Digital Age is releasing two resources for schools:

Be a Leader! is a research-based instructional program for students that focuses on assisting students gain essential skills in five areas. Version I is provided to schools at no charge.

•   Reach Out  I reach out to be kind to someone who has been treated badly or left out. I help others think things through or resolve conflict.

•   Say “Stop” I help someone who is being hurtful to stop, own it & fix it.  If it is safe, I publicly tell someone being hurtful to stop.

•   Report Concerns  If it is a serious situation, I tell an adult who can help.

•   Stop, Own It & Fix It  I remember that my choices show who I truly am. I stop myself & make things right if I was hurtful.

•   Be Positively Powerful I am making a positive difference.

Embrace Civility: Fostering Positive Relations in School is a professional development resource for school staff. This resource includes 6 short videos for school staff to watch, with accompanying written materials. Using a “flipped classroom-student voice” approach, staff can watch these videos on their own and then ask students questions about what they learned. This insight is then brought to a staff meeting for discussion and identification of positive strategies. The 6 units cover:

•   Unit 1. Embrace Civility Student Survey & Overview of a Positive New Approach

•   Unit 1. Research Insight to Support Rethinking Bullying Prevention

•   Unit 3. Helping Students Who Have Been Targeted Gain Resilience

•   Unit 4. Helping Students Who Are Hurtful Stop, Own it & Fix it

•   Unit 5. Encouraging Students to Step in to Help

•   Unit 6. Effective Interventions by Staff Who Witness Hurtful Incidents

Unit 7. Effective Investigations & Restorative Interventions is a resource for designated staff members who must respond to the more serious hurtful situations.

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