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  • Writer's pictureSimone Ellin

How the Bullying Prevention Movement Got Its Start

According to renowned researchers Dieter Wolke and Suzet Tanya Lereya,“bullying is found in all societies, including modern hunter-gatherer societies and ancient civilizations. It is considered an evolutionary adaptation, the purpose of which is to gain high status and dominance, get access to resources, secure survival, reduce stress and allow for more mating opportunities.”

Despite the universality of bullying, it was generally viewed as a rite of passage not worthy of intervention. Children who complained of being bullied were routinely advised to toughen up or just ignore cruel treatment by their peers. This was especially true if the bullying was not of the physical kind. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” was a common refrain during my childhood.

In fact, very little thought was given to the topic of bullying until the 1970s when Dan Olweus, a Scandinavian psychologist and professor at Norway’s University of Bergen began to study it. Olweus’s book, “Hackkycklingar och oversittare,” which presented the results of five empirical studies of approximately 1,000 Norwegian boys ages 12-16, was published in Scandinavia in 1973 -- right around the time when I began to experience bullying at Farragut Middle School. Regarded as the first study of bullying ever written, the book was published in the U.S. under the title “Aggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys” (John Wiley & Sons) in 1978. Olweus' study revealed that approximately 10% of boys in the study were involved in bullying either as victims or perpetrators.

For the next 20 years, Olweus continued his research and in 1993, he released a book called “Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do.” The three-part book book -- intended for teachers, principals, and parents --- provided an update of Olweus’s research and contained details of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program that he developed. The program was piloted and evaluated as part of a longitudinal study of 2,500 students in 42 elementary and junior high schools in Bergen, Norway. The study followed the students for two years to see if the Olweus program would impact bullying behaviors in their schools. When the study was completed and the data analyzed, researchers found “marked reductions – by 50% or more – in bully/victim problems for the period studied.”

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program would go on to be one of the most highly regarded of the bullying prevention programs in the United States. Even so, the problem of bullying failed to grab the attention of most Americans until a fateful day in 1999.

On April 20 of that year, Columbine High School students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered their school building, each carrying a duffle bag holding a bomb. After placing the bags in the school cafeteria, they left the building and waited for the bombs to detonate. When the bombs failed to go off, they re-entered the building armed with four weapons – two semiautomatic handguns and two shotguns.

Beginning at approximately 11:19 a.m., Harris and Klebold started shooting. When the shooting spree was over, 12 students and one teacher were dead and 20 other people were injured. The killers then took their own lives. 

The Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, was the worst school shooting to take place In the U.S. since 1966 when Charles Whitman aka the Texas Tower Shooter, killed his wife and mother and then went to the observation deck of a clock tower on the University of Texas, Austin campus where the UT architecture student, killed 13 more people and wounded 30. 

Members of the media began interviewing survivors of the Columbine massacre even as the tragedy was still in progress. Almost immediately, a narrative took hold. As Annika Neklason wrote in a 2019 article in the Atlantic, “By most accounts, the killers were outcasts, goths, loners, targets of bullying by more popular students, and members of, as described in New York Times article, ‘a group of misfits who called themselves the Trench Coat Mafia.’ They were said to listen to ‘satanic music’ and be obsessed with Nazi Germany. Reports held that they had planned their attack for Hitler’s birthday, with targets in mind among the student body: athletes, students of color, Christians—groups that had ostracized them, or that they saw as inferior.” 

Yet, in the weeks, months and years to come, as more information about Harris and Klebold and their motives came to light, it was clear that in many cases, early reporting was based on inaccurate information.

For one thing, it was later determined that Harris and Klebold were not members of the “Trench Coat Mafia.” Another assumption – that the two teens were “outcasts” and “loners” -- was also disproven. Finally, Harris and Klebord were not regularly targeted by bullies. If anything, wrote one reporter, they were more likely to bully others.

2004 article by Dave Cullen in Slate, alluded to the fact that most of the assumptions about the Columbine massacre were based on misunderstandings about the killers and their motivations.

“The first steps to understanding Columbine, [the FBI and its team of mental health professionals say], are to forget the popular narrative about the jocks, Goths, and Trenchcoat Mafia — and to abandon the core idea that Columbine was simply a school shooting,” wrote Cullen.

“School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as ‘collateral damage.’”      

Even after many media outlets corrected their reporting, early coverage of the massacre was indelibly etched in the public’s consciousness. Many believed that the way to end school shootings was by putting an end to school bullying.

Efforts to eliminate school bullying after the Columbine massacre included state laws that prohibited it.  Georgia became the first state in the U.S. to enact anti-bullying legislation in 1999. Montana was the last of the 50 states to do so in 2015. Each anti-bullying law is different but most share some key components. According to, “A typical state anti-bullying law requires a school to report, document and investigate bullying within a specific number of days. It also requires the school to take action to stop it. Many state laws list consequences for bullies. Some have a process for offering services like counseling to the victim and the bully.”

While no federal laws against bullying exist, according to the 2016 book, “Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy and Practice” (Rivara F, Le Menestrel S, editors) federal law and policy provide a framework for many of the responses to bullying. Federal law offers protections and remedies for certain individuals, while federal agency guidelines provide recommendations to states and localities developing and assessing their responses to bullying.”

Fears about the dangerous impacts of bullying reached new heights at the turn of the 21st century, when the incidence of children and teens dying by suicide to escape the pain of bullying increased significantly. The trend led journalist Neil Marr and workplace bullying victim Tim Field to write “Bullycide: Death at Playtime,” which shared tragic stories of young victims of bullying in the United Kingdom who died by suicide. The book’s authors coined the term “bullycide,” which was defined as bullying that causes the victim to take their own life.  

While we can be thankful that the short and long-term effects of bullying are now recognized, bullying is alive and well in our schools, families and workplaces. Clearly, there is much more work to be done.

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