A panel of Columbia University Irving Medical Center professors and clinicians speak to a group of educators and health care professionals about bullying research at the Renaissance Westchester Hotel in Harrison on Wednesday, Oct. 23. From the left: discussion moderator Dr. Max Gomez, Dr. Jonathan Slater, Dr. Marina Catallozzi, Dr. Karen Soren, Dr. Dani Dumitriu.
Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News
A panel of Columbia University Irving Medical Center professors and clinicians speak to a group of educators and health care professionals about bullying research at the Renaissance Westchester Hotel in Harrison on Wednesday, Oct. 23. From the left: discussion moderator Dr. Max Gomez, Dr. Jonathan Slater, Dr. Marina Catallozzi, Dr. Karen Soren, Dr. Dani Dumitriu. Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News

Dealing with bullying is more complicated than approaching the situation with a “stop the aggressor” mentality, according to several Columbia University researchers and health care professionals.

Bullying has always been an inevitable problem with youth—one that parents, schools and doctors are constantly contemplating how to handle. Over the years, the conversation around chronic harassment has evolved; today it’s not thought of as a black and white issue with an easy solution. Instead, researchers and schools are realizing there are complexities regarding why children bully and how some students are more vulnerable than others.

As part of a series to enhance engagement between the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the greater New York community, four medical researchers and professors specializing in pediatrics partook in a panel discussion about bullying on Wednesday, Oct. 23. The conversation, which was moderated by CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Max Gomez, delved into strategies on best ways to combat the issue—helping both bullies and victims develop coping mechanisms and resiliency.

“Traditionally intervention strategies have just looked at preventing bullies, or identifying bullies or punishing bullies, and that really has shown to not be very effective in reducing the incidents. It’s a much larger problem than targeting the bully,” said Dr. Jonathan Slater, who works in clinical child psychiatry. He later added: “(We have to) think big and think small. Everyone wants a quick fix—if someone’s a bully, get rid of the bully. But bullies come out of a larger problem and they have problems of their own. We have to resist that idea.”

Bullying is repetitive unwanted, aggressive behavior perpetrated by youth who are not siblings or romantically involved with the victim. While it can involve physical violence and verbal abuse, nowadays social isolation and cyberbullying is the growing trend. Blind Brook Middle School Assistant Principal Seth Horowitz said social media harassment is the most common type of bullying they deal with.

Nationwide, 19 percent of children have been bullied at school and 15 percent have experienced cyberbullying, according to Dr. Karen Soren, the director of adolescent medicine. Cyberbullying in New York is above the national average, impacting 21 percent—or 1 in 5—students.

“Who’s at risk? Anyone who is even a little bit different,” Soren said. Children can be picked on based on race, ethnicity, intelligence, socio-economic status and gender. One-third of LGBT kids have reported being bullied.

Because of the current national political climate, Soren said the medical center has also been seeing significantly more immigrant children being bullied—physically, verbally and online.

The ‘year from hell’

In the researchers’ perspective, Soren said eighth grade is the “year from hell.” At that point, students are becoming more concrete, yet they can’t visualize the future very well. Therefore, there’s a combined force of bullying being harsh while feeling the worst for children. Middle school aged victims are at higher risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide as a result of severe bullying.

At its core, bullying is about power—involving an observed or perceived power imbalance. And because power struggles are human, a lifelong factor, this type of chronic harassment is inevitable. Still, the Port Chester and Blind Brook School Districts dedicate a lot of energy and focus into mitigating the program as much as possible.

“I wish I could say our programs are 100 percent foolproof, but they’re not,” said Port Chester Middle School Guidance Counselor Louise Piccolino. “Every year we do a survey to see if kids are feeling safe, to see if there are any trends we should be aware of—we’re always tweaking our program as a result. While no program is perfect, we care deeply about every student and do the best we can to work with individuals who are either the aggressor or the victim.”

Rallying resilience for the victim

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Psychiatry Dr. Dani Dumitriu researches bullying through mice models. After replicating bullying scenarios, she said roughly 60 percent of the victimized mice show depression signs comparable to humans, which can be reversed through therapeutic and medical treatment.

The other 40 percent of mice are thought to have more resiliency—an idea that’s become a major modern aspect in handling youth bullying scenarios.

Parents, schools and support groups should help children build models of resiliency, according to Vice Chair for Education in the Department of Pediatrics Dr. Marina Catallozzi. When she works with families, she teaches them the “seven Cs” to support those efforts—competency in managing stress, building confidence, human connection, character, desire to contribute to society, coping with disappointment and gaining control in a situation where they feel powerless, such as being bullied.

If a child is being chronically harassed, Slater said it’s critical to emphasize retribution is not the answer. Fighting back, which he said his clients’ fathers have often encouraged, just makes matters worse. It can escalate quickly into an even more dangerous situation.

The most important thing parents can do, Catallozzi stressed, is provide love and support to their children. A strong family relationship naturally builds self-worth and confidence, which makes students more likely to reach out to adults when something is wrong and strengthens their ability to cope with harassment.

“There’s science behind that,” Dumitriu added. “The emotional connection between a parent and child is incredibly important. There’s a lot of science showing in humans and animals that the more connected the mom and infant are the better the social relationships later on and the less susceptibility later on.”

Catallozzi said parents should praise their children for personality traits, talents or fashion preferences that are perceived as different. That way, they are encouraged to think of their individuality as a strong suit.

A similar philosophy is practiced at Blind Brook Middle School.

“To them, middle school is all about fitting in. As adults, we know that no two people are identical, but they yearn to be like everybody else,” Horowitz said. “Our program is about celebrating differences. We understand they want to be like everyone else, but we need them to be proud about themselves, love themselves and find constructive ways to deal with problems.”

In fact, the center of the middle school’s bullying prevention program is building resiliency. Horowitz said their goal is to empower students and teach them the social skills that are necessary to resolve bullying issues themselves.

The “Stop, Walk and Talk” program initiated this year aims to do that. Essentially, students learn to literally tell the bully to stop. If it doesn’t cease then, they are instructed to walk away. If harassment continues after that, students are finally encouraged to talk to a teacher, counselor or administrator.

Similarly, Piccolino said when Port Chester Middle School encounters a bullying situation, they focus on teaching the victim coping skills.

“We want to help any students who have been victims of bullying, to learn how to really cope with it, become more confident,” she said. “We want them to learn how to stand up for themselves, being more assertive without being aggressive.”

Ultimately, Horowitz said such skills aren’t just important for school but will help students throughout life. There will always be challenges to face, and the learning to persevere with confidence early on helps establish a healthy foundation in addressing future problems.

Empathizing with bullies

Bullies face the greatest long-term risks, the panelists agreed. Especially those who lash out as a consequence of being bullied themselves.

Generally, children act as aggressors because they are having difficulty coping with their own stressors and emotions. Essentially, many children who are bullied become bullies themselves.

“Often kids who are bullied become bullies,” Soren said. “Kids who have perceived (aggression) in their own lives either internalize it and become anxious or depressed, or they can externalize that distress and become irritable and aggressive. That bullying can also be from home. Are they being ridiculed at home? Are they being abused?”

Several serious adverse outcomes are associated with victims of bullying, Slater said, such as anxiety, depression, obesity, smoking tendencies, sexual problems, and most concerning, suicide. The association is heightened in victims who become bullies.

That’s why the doctors advise against intervention techniques that simply target and punish the bully.

At Port Chester Middle School, Piccolino said they prioritize addressing the crux of what’s causing bullying behavior.

“If there’s a situation where someone is in need of support services, between individual counseling and small groups, we try to address the different behaviors within a group of peers so the student becomes aware of their impact,” Piccolino said. “We also refer out if there is a larger problem. If it’s a family issue, I can do individual work here or refer out to Open Door or Family Services of Westchester to get more therapeutic services for that student.”

Horowitz said Blind Brook Middle School uses a similar procedure. If a student is being aggressive, they connect them with social workers and guidance counselors. Then, they always research out to parents so everyone is on the same page because, “to provide a network of support, the parents have to be involved.”

Prevention through culture

When it comes to school-sanctioned bullying programs, both districts exert most of their efforts on prevention—a tactic Dumitriu strongly urges.

“I think it’s important that we focus on this at all levels. Not just intervention, but really starting a foundation of prevention and building that up from the basics all the way through intervention,” she said. “Medicine has traditionally focused on this patch where, when something goes wrong, we try to fix it. I think the revolution in medicine going forward is to really start from the ground up and prevent some of these issues.”

The key to prevention, according to the school officials, is establishing the right culture. They incorporate the sought after, positive values into their character education programs.

Schools used to bring in occasional speakers to address bullying issues, Horowitz said, which has ultimately been deemed relatively ineffective. Messages simply don’t stick very well with an occasional assembly.

Instead, last year Blind Brook Middle School implemented a character education program that embeds community values into the curriculum.

“We focus very much on us being a community. We do a lot of activities about what it means to be in a community, what our responsibilities to others are in a community,” the assistant principal said.

Every month, a theme such as respect, responsibility, citizenship and empathy is woven into the classroom. On a rotating basis, one department will serve as the “anchor classroom,” teaching targeted lessons on the theme, while the other classes gracefully incorporate it.

Both the character education and “Stop, Walk and Talk” initiatives were launched last year, and Horowitz said the number of reported bullying cases has dropped significantly ever since.

Describing how Port Chester Middle School also takes a preemptive and education approach to bullying, Piccolino said they aim to establish a climate of tolerance, respect and consideration for others. When walking through the schools, messages about the monthly character trait of focus is plastered on the walls, which is accompanied by frequent encouraging assemblies.

She touted their No Place for Hate School status, a New York State program that recognizes staff and student development and training in anti-bullying measures. By regularly giving out merit awards for kind behavior, she added that they try to establish positive enforcements.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Piccolino said. “We hope by doing that we decrease negative behaviors. Kids make mistakes, but we try to lessen that by building a strong program here. We hope that climate carries from inside the school to the outside.”

Catallozzi urged middle schools to establish a pledge system to get all students involved in bullying matters—not just the perpetrator and victim. The idea is to ensure the entire school culture is aware of and disapproves of chronic harassment.

“The more open it is, because kids like to contribute, maybe you’ll have that kid who sees the bullying and says, ‘that’s not okay,’” she said. “That’s what we want. We want our kids to be ambassadors of the goodness. And that actually leads to resilience. We want to change the whole conversation to, we know this happens and as a whole school we’re not going to accept it.”

Signs of bullying and what to do

Especially when children are being cyberbullied, it can be difficult to tell when a student is facing a damaging social situation.

Soren said parents should look out for a change in behavior—if a child seems upset when using technology, becomes socially withdrawn or acts hesitant about going to school.

If a victimized child begins suffering in terms of academic performance, social interactions or general livelihood, Slater said it is likely time to seek out professional help from the medical field.

Catallozzi said parents often overlook the option of just asking if there is a problem.

“If you ask, usually they will just tell you if something is wrong,” she stressed.

In general, the researchers agreed that schools need to be involved if bullying issues arise. There have been instances where schools have failed to be receptive to harassment complaints, Slater said, in which case it can become necessary to transfer the child to a different institution.

However, the Blind Brook and Port Chester School Districts insist that is not the case locally.

“It is 100 percent the school’s responsibility to get involved. Even if it doesn’t happen inside our school, we take it super seriously,” Piccolino said.

Horowitz echoed similar remarks.

“Our main priority is keeping children safe and creating an environment that’s conducive to their learning and comfort,” he said. “This is a matter that’s always being discussed in a way to benefit all students.”