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Spring 2012

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The Bullying Effect

UB’s new center tackles an abusive, and sometimes deadly issue

Story by Jim Bisco; illustration by Marilyn Janovitz

Jean M. AlbertiPhoto: Douglas Levere, BA ’89

“I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. ... What do I have to do so people will listen to me?”

Taunted since grade school, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who had just entered high school, hanged himself outside his home in Williamsville, N.Y., last September, drawing national attention to the issue of bullying in school among activists, journalists and Lady Gaga, Jamey’s idol, who decried the loss of another promising life to bullying. Thrust into this tragic spotlight was a new voice, one just beginning to be heard but already demonstrating authoritative resonance.

The Dr. Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence in UB’s Graduate School of Education was suddenly being solicited for response and support from parents, educators and media in the wake of this ultimate victimization. The center has since been helping to stem the anguish with a rallying stance on ways to approach this complex issue.

Jean M. Alberti, PhD ’70, is a native of Buffalo who started as a teacher in Cheektowaga and Tonawanda school districts before deciding to pursue a doctoral degree at UB in educational psychology. For the past 30 years she has been in private practice as a licensed clinical psychologist in the Chicago area doing cognitive-behavioral therapy. Her experience as a teacher as well as a therapist led to her groundbreaking theories on bullying that resulted in her establishing the center.

“I recognized that bullying is an area of abuse that has not been addressed,” she observes. “Through my counseling of victims of child abuse, spousal abuse and bullying in school, I saw the parallels in behavior of adult abusers and child and adolescent bullies. I concluded that bullying is child abuse by children. No one else is talking about this as child abuse.”

Changing Attitudes

Alberti’s passion for the issue focuses on changing attitudes in order to ultimately change behavior. “As an educator, I want to change people’s thinking about this issue so we can change the lives of the millions of children who suffer bullying abuse at the hands of other children every day,” she says.

Alberti notes that she was a feminist in graduate school. When she began to practice in Illinois in the 1980s, the feminists helped change the term in legislation about domestic violence, redefining it as spousal abuse or child abuse. “All of it came under the rubric of abuse. By changing the term, it began to change people’s attitudes about and behavior toward it. If an adult is pushing another adult into a wall or locker, it would be abuse. If a child is doing it to a child, shouldn’t we call that child abuse too? Child abuse by children,” she contends.

Alberti notes that bullying has become an increasingly serious issue. “The media focus on bullying when there is a suicide or homicide, tragic as they are, is just the tip of the iceberg,” she observes. “After the media spotlight fades, the real issue remains—the fact that millions of children experience bullying abuse every day in this country, and the adults, including educators, are not doing enough to protect them from this abuse. Bullying abuse has lifelong consequences of depression, resulting in lowered earning capacity and low self-esteem, making it a mental health issue in addition to a public health issue.”

Amanda Nickerson was named director of the Alberti Center last summer after a nationwide search. The former University at Albany associate professor and program director of school psychology is widely respected among researchers for her work in anti-bullying efforts.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘We keep talking about this. Haven’t we figured it out yet?’ I think with any complex social problem, which this is, the answer is no. It’s like saying, ‘Why haven’t we fixed poverty yet?’ ‘Why is there still murder?’ The solutions are oftentimes not overly complicated in theory but to actually carry them out and make change is much more complex,” Nickerson explains. “I think what the research is showing is that bullying abuse involves individual factors, influences from families, from schools, from peer culture—all of those things come into play, and there needs to be a significant change in all of those systems to reduce bullying.”

Research and Resources

There has been an increase in research since the 1980s beginning in Norway after a rash of suicides there related to bullying. “We know more about the characteristics of children who bully and of children who are victimized,” says Nickerson. “We know some about family and school conditions that are more likely to be associated with bullying and victimization. We know something about developmental differences, gender differences, some about outcomes, but there is a lot that we still don’t know.”

In its start-up phase, the Alberti Center has been identifying reputable, high-quality resources primarily for educators and practitioners and also for parents, and posting them on the center’s website. The center’s mission is to reduce bullying abuse in schools by providing research-based tools to actively change the language, attitudes and behaviors of educators, parents, students and wider society.

“We have a collaborative study going on with other colleagues from the department looking at bullying and victimization in the context of wellness—looking at eating disorder behavior, personality characteristics and self-compassion,” Nickerson notes. “We’re working with a number of middle schools in the area on this project. Another study we are conducting involves looking at the roles of empathy, gender, group norms [attitudes] and friendship, and how these are associated with specific bullying behaviors among middle school students.”

The center has an ongoing program evaluation study of a crisis-prevention and intervention-training curriculum called PREPaRE, of which Nickerson is an author. “We train school-based professionals to prevent and intervene with a wide variety of crisis situations that could affect schools. We have data from thousands of people who have gone through the training looking at the changes in their knowledge and attitudes.”

Nickerson says she has been working with a number of Buffalo area schools providing guidance and consultation about how they can go about measuring school climate and bullying and victimization in their schools. “I take it from the comprehensive perspective that you don’t just want to single in on the bullying and victimization but what is it that’s happening in the larger school environment—for example, how do kids feel about their connections with others and their learning environment?—because in environments that are healthier it’s going to be less likely that bullying will occur.”

Social Media’s Role

As for the social media aspect, Nickerson refers to research that clearly shows that those who are involved in cyber-bullying also are involved in other types of bullying. “I think we’re fighting a losing battle when we focus too much on how to control the technology and how to censor, spy on it and stop it, because youth will find ways around that,” she says. “We have to get at what makes people think that it’s okay to treat other people like that, whether it’s through technology or face-to-face.”

Alberti delivered the inaugural address in the symposium that marked the opening of the center last year. She wants the center to go beyond evaluating and conducting research. “The bottom line, though, is to eliminate or reduce the behavior,” she says. “That’s really the mission.”

Nickerson wants the center to be the “go to” resource on a national and international level. She notes that it’s beginning to happen in the Western New York area, with links to the Alberti Center appearing on school sites.

The Alberti Center also has contributed resources to the New York State Education Department to help with the Dignity for all Students Act, anti-harassment legislation with which schools must comply by July 2012. UB faculty affiliations include Jamie Ostrov, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, who has been conducting research on forms of aggressive behavior in preschool children (see sidebar article). He has appeared in Web videos accompanying a “Sesame Street” episode, and has participated in the White House summit on bullying.

Since her arrival at UB, Nickerson has made presentations and led information workshops on bullying and the work of the center within schools, community and agencies. Nickerson, mother of a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old, is encouraged by the positive response and partnering interests that the center has generated thus far.

Support for the Alberti Center may be made by contacting the UB Foundation at ub-giving@buffalo.edu or at 716-645-3011.

Jim Bisco is senior writer for University Communications.

Facets of bullying research

While the Dr. Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence is understandably the nexus for anti-bullying activities and research on campus, faculty from other schools and departments at the university continue their efforts to delve into the causes of bullying while seeking solutions from a variety of perspectives. Prominent among them is Catherine N. Dulmus, associate professor and associate dean for research in the School of Social Work. A leading expert on bullying and related issues of child and adolescent mental health, Dulmus has frequently addressed bullying in books, journal articles and presentations.

“Research we conducted in rural Appalachia schools examined children who were ‘bullyvictims,’ meaning they both bullied and were victims of bullying,” says Dulmus of one investigation. “We found that bully-victims experience significantly more bully behaviors than other victims. Thus, bully-victims might be caught in a troubling cycle wherein they respond aggressively to being bullied, which, in turn, triggers more persecution.”

In the Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, Associate Professor Jamie M. Ostrov serves as a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Education in their efforts to develop a uniform definition of bullying. He has assisted the federal StopBullying.gov initiative in adapting bullying-prevention materials for young children. And he was featured in a series of Web-based videos to accompany an episode of “Sesame Street.” The series also is available on DVD.

“Essentially, my research is geared toward preschoolers, which is the target audience of ‘Sesame Street,’” explains Ostrov, a developmental psychologist who also was a consultant to the Children’s Television Workshop for its bullying prevention initiative.

“Their messages—teaching children how to identify what bullying is and what to do if it happens to them, such as seeking assistance from adults—are consistent with our intervention program that addressed aggressive behavior in preschool classrooms and that also used developmentally appropriate puppets, stories and activities.”

Warning Signs

Bullying is a complex, multilayered problem, says Amanda Nickerson, director of UB’s Dr. Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence. Nickerson lectured on bullying—what it is and isn’t—before the Nov. 9 Distinguished Speakers Series appearance by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 in a brutal hate crime. While no profile exists to precisely pinpoint bullying, Nickerson says the following signs may indicate problematic behavior, or point the way to a possible solution. Her full lecture and slideshow can be accessed at here.

Signs a child may be a

victim of bullying

  • Has unexplained illnesses, cuts, bruises
  • Avoids school and social situations
  • Is passive and unassertive, and lacks friends
  • Experiences a change in behavior (e.g., lack of interest in doing things, withdrawal)
  • Has feelings of self-blame or hopelessness

Signs a child may be

bullying others

  • Refers to others negatively (e.g., “wimp” or “loser”)
  • Lacks empathy
  • Has strong need to win or be the best
  • Has hostile/defiant attitude
  • Angers easily
  • Gets in verbal or physical fights
  • Blames others
  • Has unexplained illnesses, cuts, bruises

Ways to respond to a

bullied child

  • Listen
  • Empathize (“That must have been very scary for you.”)
  • Thank child for telling
  • Take it seriously without minimizing
  • Partner with child and school to solve the problem
  • Follow up

Some Text

Sesame Street Collaboration

Jamie Ostrov and Rosita of “Sesame Street” help children understand why bullying hurts. >Watch

More Videos

A "Bullying is Wrong" Culture >Video

Judy Shepard's UB Visit >Video