Faculty Profile: The Orpinas File

Pamela Orpinas, professor of health promotion and behavior, talks with uga research editor Helen Fosgate about her research on bullying and violence in school settings and her belief that all students deserve a positive, inviting, and safe school environment in which they are free to learn.

Q: What behaviors qualify as bullying?

A: Bullying can range from simple name-calling to more serious behaviors such as threats, stealing and physical assault that, outside of school, are against the law. What differentiates bullying from other aggression is that it is repeated over time, and there is an imbalance of power. Bullies have some real or perceived advantage over their victims, such as having more friends or money, being bigger, or wearing the right clothes. Kids who bully often have poor social skills—difficulty with establishing relationships—and perform badly in school. But that is not true for all bullies; some have good social skills and use these skills to get information—which they then use against their victims—and influence others to follow them.

Victims have wide-ranging profiles, but for the most part they are perceived as being different in some way. They may not have the right friends or the right hair color. In general, the reasons why kids are bullied are irrelevant; they have done nothing to invite the abuse. However, there is another type of victim, the “aggressive victim,” who may irritate or annoy another student into aggressive behavior and then claim to have been victimized.

In addition to bullies and victims, a third group may influence the bullying situation: the bystanders. This group includes not only the students but also the adults who are present in the situation. Bystanders can be part of the problem or part of the solution. People can become part of the problem by laughing at the situation, by encouraging the bully, or simply by doing nothing to stop the bullying. Being part of the solution means to act to prevent the bullying from occurring (for example, inviting the victim to be a part of a group) or stop it when it does happen (for example, discouraging the bully or reporting the behavior).

Q: Have bullying and school violence gotten worse?

A: We don’t really know, as it’s not a phenomenon that researchers have quantified over a long period. But we do know that meanness is often considered “cool” and accepted as part of the social norm. Research has consistently shown that boys rate higher than girls in physical aggression. Against popular belief, we have found that boys report as much or higher relational aggression than girls, that is, aggression meant to destroy social relationships, like passing rumors.

Q: What are some of the consequences of bullying?

A: Most frequently, we see in the media the extreme consequences, such as homicide, when a victim finally retaliates against the real or perceived aggressors. Victims may also commit suicide, when they feel powerless to fight back. But there’s also a wide range of effects outside these extremes, including fear, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and stress-related disorders.

The victimized students may avoid eating lunch or going to the restroom because of concerns about being physically or verbally attacked. Their social lives may also suffer because other students don’t want to be seen with them, as they fear becoming the next target. Victims may avoid going to school and may have difficulty concentrating in class and, as a consequence, their grades can decline. Bullying is also a problem for the bullies, who report that they feel worse about themselves than the non-aggressive students, which may help to explain the initiation of their bullying.

Q: What strategies are most effective at preventing or reducing school violence?

A: Schools need to have a clear policy against bullying, not just physical bullying, but also verbal and relational bullying, which are harder to spot. The policy should include clear consequences, and those consequences must be systematically enforced. The school community also needs to embrace social norms that discourage bullying, and create a positive environment that promotes trust, mutual caring, and respect. The limitation for schools, of course, is that they don’t have any control over what happens at home or on the street, but they do have a lot of control over what happens at school.

Adults often give the message, “You should solve this yourself,” but the victims wouldn’t be victimized if they could solve it. How would we feel if our department head said, “solve it yourself” if we reported bullying in the office? If the bullying is dangerous, the child who is the target of bullying should report it immediately.

In other situations, victims of bullying should keep a diary (when, where, who, what) so they can report specific incidents, rather than general complaints. They can take this information to a trusted teacher, school counselor, or principal and develop a plan to stop the bullying.

Q: How did you come to study bullying, and what drives your continued interest and commitment to research in this area?

A: I’m from Chile, and I lived through the military coup, which happened on September 11, 1973. Chile was peaceful before that time, but for many years after the coup, violence became a normal part of life. And I got interested in how this happens and how violence affects people’s behavior and cognitions. I studied psychology in Chile; then I received a Masters in Public Health at UCLA, and I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Texas. For my dissertation, I went to the local school district, and asked, “What do you need to know?” I developed a project on violence prevention based on their needs. I am currently also examining violence in dating relationships and early predictors of high school dropout.

-Helen Fosgate

Posted N0vember 19, 2009.