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The Q&A: Jonathan Schwartz

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Jonathan Schwartz, associate dean of graduate studies for the College of Education at the University of Houston.

Jonathan Schwartz is associate dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Education at the University of Houston

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Jonathan Schwartz is associate dean of graduate studies for the College of Education at the University of Houston. His research focuses on teen bullying in schools.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about your research as it relates to teen bullying and your specific interest in diversity-based bullying. 

Jonathan Schwartz: My interest in bullying really focuses on prevention and how often bullying is based on individual differences. If you think of what’s acceptable at every school, it’s like a circle. If you’re inside the circle, your behavior is acceptable. If you’re outside the circle, your behavior is different. The people outside that circle are often targeted. Every school has their own context and that circle is smaller or bigger and looks different in every school.

I’m especially interested in diversity-based bullying — when people are bullied for differences based on race or sexual orientation or religion or skin color. If you want to make that circle more inclusive it needs to be a team effort. That’s an issue the school as a whole, including parents, need to address.

Trib+Edu: What challenges do schools and parents run up against in trying to find a solution to bullying?

Schwartz: The common things I hear, especially from teachers, who often are well intentioned and want to do the best thing for the school, is that it feels overwhelming. There’s so much interaction between kids in middle school, which is where bullying is the most common. The kids are growing, and there’s so much natural conflict and name-calling, it just feels hard for teachers to know how to address it.

There’s also some sense that bullying is a rite of passage or it makes kids tougher or is something that just happens. There can be lifetime negative repercussions for both the the bully and the person who is bullied.

Trib+Edu: What do you mean by lifetime repercussions?

Schwartz: Any form of abuse, it lasts. People who have been bullied often have higher rates of depression and anxiety. They have lower self esteem. Students who are bullied tend to miss a lot more school. For bullies in general, there’s a direct relationship with involvement in juvenile delinquency and the adult criminal system.

There’s also a relationship between those who are bullies in middle school and being involved in intimate violence as an adult. It doesn’t mean everyone who is a bully or has been bullied will have those repercussions, but there’s research linking them to these behaviors.

Trib+Edu: Why was it important for you to focus on bullying based on diversity as opposed to bullying in general?

Schwartz: That’s what we found was prevalent when we started our research in schools. The Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education has strict guidelines about what should be done in those cases.

The correlate is like hate crimes with adults. You treat hate crimes differently than you treat other types of violent crimes. With kids, the Office of Civil Rights wants a school-based effort to address these issues.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about your research about social-norming campaigns led by students. What do they entail?

Schwartz: In our research, that worked really well. Kids really want to fit in, especially with people they see as the cool kids, so if you can show that something is the normal behavior for your age group it can really change people’s attitudes. One example of a social norming campaign would be publicizing the idea that 90 percent of students from a school have a friend from another racial group.

If kids lead it, it’s more impactful than if it’s a message coming from teachers or parents. Typically you have a student group that’s very thoughtful and they recruit people. They often do surveys with the school and try and address diversity-based bullying.

Trib+Edu: What are effective prevention measures?

Schwartz: To prevent bullying, you really need the whole school — all school personnel — in teamwork with parents. No matter who witnesses bullying at the school, there should be an adult that takes it seriously and steps in to stop it.

One of the first things you do in a bullying program is find out where it’s occurring — the hotspots. In some schools, it might be the hallway. Between classes, it could be the bus, it could be the bathrooms. If you start understanding from the student’s perspective where it’s happening, you can set up just environmental barriers to bullying, which is a simple prevention.

Trib+Edu: What happens when teachers and administrators are shut off from the bullying world?

Schwartz: One of the first things you do when you start a bullying program is start surveying the kids and conducting focus groups with them to understand how, why and where bullying is occurring at that school. If you can set up the right environment, students are often eager to talk about what’s going on.

Trib+Edu: What role do teachers play in preventing bullying? Is there an expectation that they have to take on a counselor role in bullying situations?

Schwartz: One of the things we’re doing at the College of Education is training teachers, counselors and school psychologists on how to address bullying. One way to address prevention is in the training of professionals who are going to be in the schools.

Teachers are slammed and do an amazing job. But we’re thinking about things like classroom management and monitoring hotspots in the school and understanding the definition of bullying and how to address it. It’s not necessary that they’re going to counsel people who are bullied. One of the things you don’t want to do in bullying situations is mediate because there is a power differential.

Trib+Edu: Is cyberbullying a category of its own?

Schwartz: It really is a category of its own. Cyberbullying is very public, it’s 24/7. There’s no way to escape from it. There’s recent research that’s found it has a more negative impact than bullying face-to-face, psychologically.

Schools often have policies about social media and access to it at school, but once students leave often they have free access to any kind of social media, even on their phones. This is where it’s really important for schools to team up with parents to prevent cyberbullying.

Trib+Edu: What’s something people don’t fully understand about teen bullying?

Schwartz: I think people often underestimate the psychological toll it takes on people to be bullied. One of the definitions of bullying is there’s a power differential — at least a perceived power differential and that is repeated over time.

The reason they’re bullied — if you think about someone being bullied for their race, sexual orientation, race or religion — is really a deep cut into someone’s identity.

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