A randomized controlled trial of the No Bully System in Oakland, CA, public schools found that group-based programming designed to build empathy and active support for participating bullying victims among peers and perpetrators led to substantial drops in both the frequency and severity of bullying incidents that those victims experienced.
For some victims in the treatment groups, bullying incidents decreased fivefold — from nearly five times a week to barely once a week. For bullying severity, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being “very bad,” one set of victims enlisted in the peer groups reported that, at a point in time two to three months after the group intervention, bullying severity fell from 7.85 to 1.97.
Challenges with program implementation, however, suggest caution in concluding that the program is responsible for these impacts. Further, the program did not demonstrate benefits for bullying perpetrators or impacts at the school level.
The Oakland schools No Bully System program was an initiative of the organization No Bully, a nonprofit committed to developing nonpunitive, long-term solutions to bullying in schools. Student bullying in elementary through high schools is a pervasive problem in the United States, with between 30 and 45 percent of youth experiencing bullying — as victim, perpetrator, or both — in their peer group, according to research cited in the No Bully System study report. Notwithstanding a major public policy emphasis on bullying in recent years, with 49 states having required schools to adopt anti-bullying programs, many teachers and other school staff do not feel prepared to address bullying in their schools, according to the study report.
The No Bully System Intervention Model
The core intervention of the No Bully System is the formation of Solution Teams, with a trained adult “Solutions Coach” bringing together for three sessions a group of six to eight students, including the perpetrator, pro-social peers, and “bystanders.” (Fellow students are often present as bystanders when bullying occurs). The bullying victim is only invited to the third meeting, to share his or her experiences and acknowledge actions of the team. Among other program components, the Solutions Coach consults the victim after the first two meetings and follows up three months later.
No Bully training materials define bullying as when a student (or a group of students) repeatedly targets a less powerful student using physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying (efforts to isolate a student from a peer group), or cyberbullying, or some combination of bullying forms.
The No Bully System model works to build peers’ understanding of the needs of both bullying perpetrators and targets and to raise peers’ willingness to include both perpetrators and targets in “pro-social” – as distinct from “anti-social” – experiences. According to the study report, the program aims to cultivate empathy in peers, a quality recognized as a key to their willingness to intervene in future bullying incidents. The report also noted research showing that children often lack empathy for bullying victims. They regard victims as being the cause of their own victimization, because they differ in some way from school norms.
The No Bully System Evaluation in Oakland Schools
The No Bully nonprofit has implemented the No Bully System in schools across the country. Unique to the No Bully System experiment in the Oakland schools is that for the first time a rigorous randomized controlled trial (RCT) was used. The two-year RCT was conducted in the Oakland Unified School District by WestEd under a grant from NIJ.
Initially, 12 elementary schools each were selected for the treatment and control groups in the evaluation. Participating schools were highly diverse, both ethnically and economically. Treatment and control schools were matched to account for variation in factors such as school size and demographics.
There was significant variation in implementation of the No Bully System by school. By the end of the first year of implementation, the research team cautioned, only five of the 20 treatment group schools were implementing the No Bully System with fidelity. Researchers found that unstable school environments and the fact that two schools shared a single location may have influenced implementation.
The RCT was designed to address whether participating in the No Bully System benefits victims of bullying, reduces perpetration and victimization for all students at high risk of bullying involvement as perpetrators or victims, and improves school safety and other indicators of school climate, from the perspective of all students.
Program Impact on Bullying Victims
Bullying victims entering the No Bully System program reported they were bullied an average of about five days a week — or nearly every school day. At the end of the Solution Team process, bullying was down to one to two days a week. For 39 victims who were assessed in a follow-up check-in two to three months later, bullying was down to about one day a week.
By the end of the Solution Team process, reported severity had fallen from around 7-8 (on a 10-point scale) to 2.5-3, with a further drop to around 2 for victims who were assessed in a follow-up check-in two to three months later.
Types of Bullying Experienced
Bullying targets rarely experience only one type of bullying, the WestEd evaluators noted. The most numerous types of bullying incidents experienced by Solution Team participants in Oakland were:
- Physical and verbal — 26 incidents.
- Verbal and relational — 18 incidents.
- Verbal only — 17 incidents.
- Physical, verbal, and relational — 12 incidents.
Perception of School Safety
Bullying victims who participated in the No Bully System intervention reported that average perceptions of their personal safety improved as a result, from either “unsafe” or “neither safe nor unsafe” to “safe.”
Program Impact on Students at High Risk of Bullying Victimization and Perpetration
Students in the treatment group at high risk of being bullying victims experienced an approximate 30-percent reduction in their victimization rates, relative to the control group. No discernible impacts of the No Bully System were detected, however, “on bullying perpetration among students identified as being at high risk of perpetration,” the evaluators said.
Although previously bullied students in the treatment group were found to benefit from the No Bully System, the study report noted other research showed that combining pro-social and anti-social youth in groups can have harmful effects. But a No Bully System developer advised that negative consequences are uncommon in the No Bully System program, with most bullying perpetrators in intervention groups offering solutions to bullying. In addition, there were multiple safeguards in place to prevent negative consequences.
Program Impact on All Students
The No Bully System study also examined whether the program had a school-wide impact in terms of safety perceptions, bullying victimization, and bullying perpetration. No impact was detected. “The results therefore do not support the hypothesis that No Bully System improves school safety, peer support, and other indicators of school climate for all students in participating schools,” the WestEd study report said.
There is limited evidence that the No Bully System can achieve desired outcomes related to bullying and school safety. The evaluation found individual benefits in terms of reduced bullying incidents for those at highest risk for victimization but no reductions in bullying perpetration for those at highest risk for perpetration. It also found no benefit in terms of school-wide impact on bullying or measures of school safety and climate. Program implementation was a challenge at several sites.
The WestEd evaluation team concluded that the No Bully System “may be an effective tool for responding to bullying incidents and reducing victimization for students at high risk of being bullying targets.” But no impacts were detected on school-wide safety and other measures of school-wide climate. The evaluation team noted, however, that uneven program implementation could have had an effect on outcomes.
CrimeSolutions.gov has assessed the available evidence produced by this study and determined that it is inconclusive and no rating can be assigned to the No Bully System with respect to its effectiveness.
About this Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-CK-BX-0007, awarded to WestEd. This article is based on the grantee report “Final Summary Overview: Impact Evaluation of No Bully System” (pdf, 29 pages) (February 2019) by Thomas Hanson, Jo Ann Izu, Trevor Fronius, and Anthony Petrosino.
[note 1] T. Hanson, J.A. Izu, T. Fronius, A. Petrosino, “Final Summary Overview: Impact Evaluation of No Bully System” (WestEd 2019), NIJ Award No. 2014-CK-BX-0007, at p. 4, citing Swearer, S., & Cary, P. (2007). “Perceptions and attitudes towards bullying in middle school youth: A developmental examination across the bullying continuum. In J. E. Zins, M. J. Elias, & C. A. Maher (Eds.), Bullying, victimization and peer harassment (pp. 67-83). New York: Haworth Press.