The Cincinnati Public School System has agreed to a proposed settlement of a lawsuit arising out of the suicide of an 8-year-old student. The school system will pay $3 million and institute new anti-bullying programs. The parties dispute exactly what happened at school, but agree that a tragedy happened and that the lawsuit should end.
Unfortunately, it is far from clear that any new anti-bullying programs can prevent future tragedies. I understand the strong impulse to search for explanations and meaning in the tragic death of a child. It’s hard to accept that even children have agency and sometimes there is no way we can prevent their bad decisions. The available evidence, however, does not support optimism about new programs.
The Department of Justice has evaluated 13 programs, and found only 3 of them to be effective. 7 others are “promising,” but lack effectiveness in one or more areas. None of those 10 seems to use the restorative justice model that this settlement mandates. Another study found that some anti-bullying programs are effective up to 7th grade, but starting in 8th grade, the programs are ineffective or even counterproductive. A recent Penn State study of middle and high school students hypothesizes that most anti-bullying programs focus on the wrong targets.
At the end of the day, we need more research into how to prevent bullying, and how much we actually can prevent. Choosing programs by lawsuit may be inevitable, but there is no evidence that it’s as helpful as we hope.