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With a $4.1 million grant to research bullying, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia may be better equipped to help principals battle the age-old scourge of schools.

The grant is controversial because some scholars believe that some anti-bullying programs actually can go too far.

“Bullying was undeniably a problem that needed to be brought out of obscurity, but the issue has arguably now gotten too much attention,” wrote Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. “Such hype can lead to other problems such as the use of bullying accusations themselves as weapons in peer conflicts and overly harsh ‘zero tolerance’ policies that over-punish minor infractions and may exacerbate the isolation that can lead to bullying in the first place.”

Keith Herman, co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center and a professor in the university’s department of educational, school and counseling psychology, will lead a team of five researchers.

If proven successful, the program could be recommended to the U.S. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and individual state education departments as a standard model of anti-bullying training for principals across the country.

“Training for principals and educators varies across the country,” Herman said. “Some receive a three-hour class while others have ongoing training. There are a lot of training programs for principals, but as far as I know, they have never been evaluated beyond people’s perception of how well the programs work.”

More than 22 percent of children ages 12-18 say they have been bullied in school within the last month, while 17 percent of high school students say they have seriously considered attempting suicide within the last year, according to a Nov. 14 University of Missouri press release.

“The education system hasn’t done a great job of training principals to manage all aspects of school safety,” Herman said. “Our goal is to identify a program that improves school safety. By applying scientific methods, we can determine if this program is effective and worth implementing in schools across the country.”

Herman said he does not anticipate getting the program mandated via federal and state education laws. Rather, he said, he hopes the program can be presented to educators as a best-practices model.

“I want to make the information from the study widely available for others to make decisions in terms of education policy, whether it proves to be good or bad,” Herman said. “I don’t think we would ever try to legislate it and say that all public schools have to use this program. But I would love to be able to show that it works and why it does and show how to get it implemented. If it makes a positive impact on students, and we give adults and students the skills and tools to make good decisions, it’s a win-win for society.”

Still, even critics acknowledge the harms that bullying can do, and credit the intentions of anti-bullying efforts.

One such, the St. Louis-based Megan Meier Foundation, was founded in 2007 by Tina Meier, whose daughter took her own life after being cyber-bullied by classmates. Meier and the foundation have spent the last decade trying to create positive change around the country to end bullying, cyber-bullying and suicide among students.

There is no federal law, but all 50 states have some kind of anti-bullying law.

Alex King, program manager for the foundation, said she could not comment specifically about the university’s study. However, she said anti-bullying programs need to take a comprehensive approach to the problem.

“Any prevention program needs to take a comprehensive approach,” King said. “It needs to involve the youths, parents, educators, counselors, school nurses, the janitor and cafeteria monitors. It’s a community approach. A janitor or cafeteria monitor might see more than others so they need to be trained. Whether it’s cyber or physical, bully prevention requires a comprehensive effort.”

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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