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James Brown

Parents of bullied middle school students often feel “helpless and hopeless” in the aftermath of reporting the abuse to school officials, said a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh researcher.

UW Oshkosh assistant professor of social work James Brown’s study of the impact of middle school bullying on parents was published recently in the “Journal of Interpersonal Violence.”

Brown’s interest in bullying began when he worked as a school social worker, serving youth ages 4 to 21 who had emotional and learning disabilities. He later worked on developing an intervention called “Verbal Judo” to help youth deal with bullies.

In his in-depth research of 11 Indiana parents of children who were bullied, Brown found that their experiences involved three stages—discovering, reporting and living with the aftermath of the bullying.

When the parents first found out about the bullying, they initially offered advice to their children about how to stay safe at school, such as ignoring the bully or walking away from the situation. Brown said this is typically not effective at putting a stop to the problem.

Not until the parents noticed how continued bullying was starting to affect their child’s behavior, such as complaining about not wanting to go to school or of having frequent stomach aches, did the parents take the next step of reporting the problem to school officials.

In all but one of the situations, reporting the bullying was met with resistance at the schools. Often, there is confusion about what the school’s policy is regarding bullying and to whom parents should report the abuse, Brown explained.

In one case, the bullying continued for more than a year, and the bully’s parents were never notified of the situation.

“From their perspective, the parents may feel helpless and hopeless when school officials do not validate their concerns about the inappropriate behavior,” Brown said. “Parents need to feel empowered to be their student’s advocate.”

Based on his findings, Brown suggests that parents take the following steps when reporting bullying in the schools:

  • Demand to meet with the principal from the start. Begin the discussion with something positive about their student’s experience at the school to pave the way for a productive discussion.
  • Take notes about what is said during the meeting and send a recap email of the actions the school plans to take. Compare the actions with what is outlined in the student handbook.
  • If the bullying continues, take concerns to the next level with the school superintendent and, if necessary, to a school board meeting.

Brown, who teaches human behavior in the social environment, community lab and interpersonal practice skills, also serves as the faculty adviser to the UWO Student Social Work Association.

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