Violence and teen suicide - two pressing issues in American schools - seem intrinsically connected to bullying.
The number of youth suicides experienced its largest one-year increase in 15 years in 2004, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, reminding students that the peer they ostracize today may take his or her life tomorrow - or plan to take others.
The case of Dillon Cossey, the Montgomery County 14-year-old charged with planning a Columbine-type attack at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, reminded students what can happen if a schoolmate is mocked.
In the Coatesville Area School District, all seven elementary schools will implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in January. It was designed by Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus (Ol-VEY-us).
"You're taking a systematic approach - you're not dealing with only the teachers, you're not just taking a group of students, you're dealing with the whole gamut," said Ericka Washington, bullying-prevention coordinator for the Philadelphia School District, which implemented the Olweus program in 2001.
Philadelphia has seen mixed results, but Washington says that the system is sound, and its effectiveness is up to those bringing it into the schools.
"We have seen some very positive results in sites that have implemented it with fidelity," said Washington.
Olweus has spent much of his career studying bullying. From 1970 to 1995, he was professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. The Norwegian government commissioned him to conduct research and create an intervention program in 1983, after three boys from northern Norway committed suicide and bullying was identified as a factor.
The result is a program that is unparalleled in its scope and effectiveness, according to those who have helped bring it to the United States.
"We really believe that the community has to be involved if you want to see long-term change," said Marlene Snyder, national training director for the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University.
The program tackles bullying at four levels - community, school, classroom and individual. Methods include an anonymous bullying survey, the formation of a bullying-prevention coordination committee, and tightened supervision of students during break periods.
Classrooms hold regular meetings about peer relations. Community meetings are held. Both bullies and the students they target are met with individually.
Olweus proponents claim proven reductions in bullying incidents vary between 33 percent and 64 percent in the first year. Snyder said that about 3,000 U.S. schools have implemented the program.
Each Coatesville elementary school sent its principal, a teacher from each grade level, and one special-area teacher to the Chester County Intermediate Unit in Downingtown in July for two days of training. Those who attended were responsible for training the rest of their school's staff, and each school will roll out the program in January as a sort of New Year's resolution, said Reeseville Elementary principal Anthony Buckwash.
"The idea is not to turn the other cheek . . . [yet] to understand that if [bullying] continues it can turn into really serious things," Buckwash added. "I think it's going to be effective."
Coatesville will evaluate the success of the Olweus program at the end of the 2008-09 school year and look at the possibility of implementing it at the middle school level in the next few years, said Camie Arvey, director of elementary education.
"We get a lot of calls where people want us to fix the kids, but we tell them that Olweus is about adult and systems change," said Snyder, referring to the challenge of fighting the idea that bullying is a rite of passage and that what doesn't kill can only make youths stronger.
"We really need to get the word out to parents that this [bullying] is harmful, but something can be done," Snyder said.