Researchers evaluate Iowa’s anti-bullying law

While 49 of 50 states in the U.S. have anti-bullying laws in place, little is known about the effectiveness of these laws on preventing bullying behavior among youth.

However, researchers from the University of Iowa, led by Marizen Ramirez, associate professor of occupational and environmental health, recently published a study evaluating the effectiveness of Iowa’s anti-bullying law in reducing bullying and improving teacher response to bullying incidents. The study appears in the June edition of Injury Epidemiology.

A portrait of Marizen Ramirez of the University of Iowa College of Public Health
Marizen Ramirez

Implemented in 2007, Iowa Code 280.28 requires schools to adopt an anti-bullying policy that defines acts of bullying, puts into place a process for reporting incidents, and describes consequences and actions for bully perpetrators. Unlike most states with similar laws, Iowa had collected student-reported bullying data since 2005, which enabled the researchers to compare numbers from the pre-law period with those from the post-law period.

The findings of the study suggest that Iowa’s law had a positive effect in helping reduce relational, verbal, and physical bullying, initially due to increased awareness and reporting, with longer-term trends toward an actual decrease in the number of bullying incidents. However, Iowa’s law does not appear to impact the extent to which teachers intervened on bullying incidents as school.

According to Ramirez, laws are among the most impressive public health prevention strategies because they have legislative “teeth” and involve prevention efforts often across multiple sectors in a community.

“Our research begins to understand how laws can indeed lead to meaningful changes,” Ramirez says, “and this knowledge is essential for the schools who are struggling each day to deal with the bullied child.”

She says that further research is needed to understand which specific components of anti-bullying laws work and how laws could be improved for greater impact.

Others contributing to the study include Corinne Peek-Asa and Joseph Cavanaugh from the UI College of Public Health, Patrick Ten Eyck from the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig from the UI College of Law.

Encouraging the art of empathy

illustrations of young people with laptop, backpacksI AM FROM FRIED MOZZARELLA.

I AM FROM COOL SPRING DAYS.

I AM FROM THEY SAID I WAS NOT THAT SMART.

These are words written by Cedar Rapids, Iowa, middle school students who participated in an activity to get them talking about bullying and identity using art and expression. First, the students answered questions like: What is your favorite food? What is your favorite season? What is something cruel that has been said to you? Then, the students put the words “I am from” in front of their responses, creating poems to share with their peers.

The “I am from” poem helps students learn that we all share experiences of pain and joy and have something to learn about everyone. It is just one of many activities described in a new web toolkit launched in early 2016 called HEAR: Helping Educators Use Art to Reduce Bullying. The toolkit, aimed at teachers, youth group leaders, and others working with middle and high school students, is a collaboration between the University of Iowa College of Public Health, UI Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and Working Group Theater based in Iowa City.

Emotions and Empathy

Focusing on the emotional side of bullying is exactly what researchers hope will help create empathy among students and a culture that does not accept bullying behavior.

“Current bullying prevention programs take a traditional approach, providing information in a classroom, much like math and reading are taught,” says Corinne Peek-Asa, director of the IPRC and principal investigator of the HEAR project. “However, teenage brains have a very active emotional center, and neurological research shows that the intellectual area of their brains — those that allow mature decision making — are not fully mature until teenagers reach their early 20’s.”

The HEAR web toolkit is an extension of the Out of Bounds project, a play about cyberbullying commissioned by Hancher and funded by the Iowa Arts Council. The Working Group Theater (WGT) began developing the play in 2013, around the same time that Marizen Ramirez, associate director for science at the IPRC, was conducting research on the effectiveness of anti-bullying policies in Iowa schools. The team sponsored a community event to gather feedback and inform the play’s development.

The WGT also interviewed local families, guidance counselors, and police officers about their experiences with bullying. The outcome: Out of Bounds toured 18 schools in eastern Iowa in 2013 and later won a prestigious award that helped support a national tour in early 2016.

illustration of a young woman talking on a cell phoneThe Moment of Choice

Jennifer Fawcett, one of the founders of WGT, said former friends of a young woman who was interviewed for the Out of Bounds project knew what they were supposed to do as bystanders in a bullying situation, but still chose not to do it.

“With the play, and then the toolkit activities, we wanted to pinpoint that moment of choice so students would think about what kind of choice they would make,” Fawcett says.

“The problem with an issue like bullying is that it can be reduced to slogans which are easy to say, but very hard to do,” Fawcett continues. “The exercises in the HEAR toolkit give students an opportunity to reflect on how bullying affects their lives. They get to literally practice different behaviors and explore how they could effectively change the climate of their schools.”

In 2015, both the play and the toolkit were tested with students in five Cedar Rapids middle schools as part of a service learning course funded by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust and IPRC. In the course, led by IPRC researchers, 10 UI students first learned about the epidemiology of bullying and building community partnerships, and tried out several of the activities to use at the schools.

The UI students and several teachers then led the activities in participating classrooms. The UI students’ survey found that about 95 percent of the teachers at the middle schools had a positive or very positive impression of the play, and more than 90 percent felt their students were very or somewhat motivated to implement anti-bullying strategies after seeing it. The HEAR activities were also viewed favorably: “Teachers said that the activities encouraged reflection on bullying and allowed the students to creatively share their thoughts,” says Ramirez.

Creating a Positive Environment

Some HEAR activities focus on expressive and reflective writing: an anti-bullying poster, a letter to a bullying victim and perpetrator, and an anti-bullying pledge. Others center on drama, like acting out a real-life bullying situation and exploring ways to handle the conflict.

And with cyberbullying on the rise, other activities have students develop an anti-bullying Twitter campaign or draw a “selfie” of themselves—and then have their peers provide positive comments on it. Students thus have the opportunity to practice using positive language to change the impact of bullying.

“Bullying is a complicated issue, and this toolkit is one way we can encourage empathy and help youth create a positive environment,” says Peek-Asa.

The web toolkit is free and available at www.hear-project.org.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of InSight

Researchers create arts-based anti-bullying toolkit

Researchers at the University of Iowa College of Public Health’s Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC) have collaborated with a local theater group to develop a toolkit of arts-based activities aimed at bullying prevention.

Logo for HEAR - Helping Educators Use Art to Reduce BullyingThe web-based toolkit includes activities such as reflexive writing, games, photo voice, and “complete the scene” short plays. It also includes information for the activity leaders on how to prepare for the activities and have productive conversations about a difficult subject.

According to Dr. Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health, the toolkit was tested through a College of Public Health service learning class. “The feedback we received was very positive,” she says. “The students and teachers really enjoyed this interactive approach to addressing bullying.”

The kit is free and can be used by anyone interested in bullying prevention activities, including schools, youth groups, after school program, churches, and clubs. There are a number activities for different age groups, but any activity can be modified to fit a particular age group.

HEAR (Helping Educators use Art to Reduce bullying) is collaboration between the IPRC and Working Group Theater that began with the creation of “Out of Bounds,” a play developed for student audiences in elementary, junior, and high schools to spark conversation about bullying.

Neurological research shows that adolescent and teenage brains have a very active emotional center, making them receptive to arts-based messaging. By stimulating an emotional reaction to bullying, researchers hope teens will better understand bullying behavior and how to prevent it.

The HEAR toolkit is available at: http://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/hear/