What of those who witness bullying at school?

Bullying on campuses not only affects immediate victims, but alters the entire school climate. Witnesses can suffer as well.

A 2005 study by researchers Adrienne Nishina and Jaana Juvonen examined sixth-grade students’ perceptions of bullying. It affirmed that bullying affects not just the victim, but all bystanders, regardless of their role. “Anxious feelings increased regardless of whether the peer harassment was experienced or witnessed,” the authors wrote.

Elizabeth A. Barton, author of Bully Prevention, categorizes witnesses this way:

Bully Supporters

  • Incite the bully without taking part in the confrontation.
  • Don’t interact with the victim.
  • Create a supportive environment for the bully.
  • Are influenced by the bully’s appreciation of their efforts.

Passive Supporters

  • Are uninvolved in the confrontations.
  • Are perceived by the victim as bully supporters based on their lack of interaction.


  • Step in on behalf of the victim.
  • Stick up for the victim.
  • Are motivated by a sense of injustice.

Administrators and teaching staff need to know the kinds of witnesses in each case as well as the types of bullies and victims. If the witnesses are bully supporters, the school must deal with them to alleviate the problem. If administrators reprimand a bully but not his supporters, harassment of the target individual will likely continue.

These findings underscore the importance of school-wide programs that promote character and teach all students why bullying is wrong and can affect everyone.

The Teacher’s Role

Teachers can reinforce or even trigger a cycle of bullying. They have power, and any time they single out a student — even with a humorous remark that might not have been ill-intentioned — there may be repercussions. Not only might that child feel alienated, but it could open the door to student ridicule at recess.

Teachers can use sarcasm as a humorous tool with students, but students tend to model what teachers do, especially in the primary grades. If a teacher calls a student a funny nickname that bothers the student, that’s bullying. Unfortunately, teachers don’t always realize the power they possess.

Teachers have been known to use harmful, humiliating strategies to get students on task. If students are not following along during a group reading activity, for example, making them stand or badgering them can invite teasing from other students later.

Does your school have a problem with bullies? Check out our free anti-bullying resources and lesson plans and learn more about our anti-bullying workshops for educators, coaches, and parents.