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To stop bullying, get the popular kids on board

Most efforts to end bullying -- the PSAs, assemblies and high-level policy discussions -- come from adults.

But what if students had a say?

In 2012, Princeton psychology and public affairs professor Elizabeth Levy Paluck and her fellow researchers decided to test that idea: They gave the students the power to tackle bullying, almost on their own.

And the researchers found that in the schools where more popular students joined a program that asked them to make their school a more positive place, all students were less likely to be disciplined for bullying and other conflicts between students. Their study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. 

Paluck and her team went into 56 middle schools in New Jersey and asked about 24,000 students to identify the people with whom they spend the most time, in person or online. They then created social network maps to identify the most visible students in the school — the ones who others spent the most time with and paid the most attention to.

The researchers note that these influential students do not necessarily meet the definition of “popular” in the ‘80’s-Molly-Ringwald-movie mentality of “cool kids” who are “kind of loved and loathed,” Paluck said. Rather, they might be leaders among different groups of students, such as the head of the theater club or the leader of the band. 

“These people stand out to their peers,” Paluck said. “They’re the ones who you look toward when you’re trying to figure out what is going on at the school.”

The influential students also tended to have older siblings, and were more likely to be dating, factors that told researchers that these students might seem more mature than their peers. They were also more likely to be complimented on their house, suggesting that their families might be wealthier.

In 28 of the schools, they asked 20 to 32 random students to participate in what they called the Roots Program. These students attended voluntary meetings during school -- lured by the promise of snacks, the power to implement change and the license to miss class once every two weeks -- and learned strategies to combat bullying and other forms of conflict in school.

The students in the Roots program learned how to react to conflicts they commonly see in school and model positive behavior around their friends. They received social media strategic training, designed wristbands with anti-bullying slogans, and had orange wristbands to give out when they saw another student addressing conflict in a positive way. They learned how to use hashtag campaigns and memes.

On average, the schools that had a larger number of influential students in their Roots programs were significantly more likely to have fewer citations of bullying or conflict for each student.

One concern was that adult involvement ran the risk of making the influencers less influential to other students. So the researchers let the students control the medium and the delivery of the message. Students could post or act as often or as little as they wanted, and tended to avoid the word “bullying,” for example, associating it with a more infantile concept. Instead, they came up with hashtag campaigns for Instagram that were more subtle, like “#iRespect,” Paluck said.

The strategy was to “act like the students’ campaign managers,” Paluck said. “Just to give them the tools and let them message.”

Bringing students into the mix may become more popular. Guidance from the Department of Education released Monday encourages “classroom discussions and other school activities” to prevent harassment and bullying, though it largely focuses on the role that adults can play in teaching students how to behave, rather than using a guerrilla campaign to normalize niceness.

Some prevention programs do include students through discussions or role-playing activities. But it’s less common to see a program that puts students in charge, said Melissa Holt, a counseling psychology professor at Boston University who researches bullying prevention.

Middle school is the time when students start to distance themselves from adults and look more toward their peers for social cues, Holt said. So it makes sense to ask students, especially the well-liked ones, to model that behavior.

But research has shown that the most effective programs are comprehensive and engage both students and adults, Holt said. That could mean asking teachers as well as those working in the lunchroom, the office or the bus to emphasize and reward kindness.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com.

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