A program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 3

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Fri, 07/19/2013 - 21:04

Bullying and mobbing in schools, business, community organizations and subsidized housing are plagues that affect everyone. How can we stop, prevent, and eliminate bullying and mobbing? We need first to understand and analyze what causes bullying. One useful approach is to view the social system within which bullying takes place. Another approach might be to adopt a public health perspective. These approaches are complementary and together can be the basis to develop interventions.

The systems view

Let us adopt a systems perspective that involves not just the individual pieces, but how they interact as a system. Bullying behaviors take place between individuals and groups, but we need to see how these actions and relations are embedded in a wider context. We need to find ways to make changes in the system of relationships, not just by protecting or blaming specific individuals.

Duffy and Sperry{1} define mobbing as social bullying that is condoned or supported by the institution. They view mobbing in the context of the institution (business, school, community organization), as well as at the levels of the group and the individual (bully, victim, bystander, manager). Therefore, they assert, prevention and remediation must make changes in institutional policies and management behavior, changes in the dynamics of groups, and changes at the individual level, as by setting limits on bullying behavior and/or treat individuals who have been harmed.

In public housing, we need to broaden the system definition to include the public, agencies of the Commonwealth, professionals providing social services, and first responders.{2}

The public health perspective

Public health is "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals."{3}

There are three key aspects to public health: identification, remediation, and prevention. Identification requires surveillance—a mechanism for observing, reporting, and a mechanism for triggering a response to disease in a population. Remediation requires a coordinated societal intervention to find the source of the disease, treat affected persons, and prevent the spread of the disease. Finally, there must be an effort to remedy the underlying conditions, build or remedy infrastructure, and educate people.

A classic example of public health was the discovery by John Snow in 1854 that people sick with cholera had all used a particular source of contaminated water in London. Diseases borne by human waste are routinely prevented by universal access to clean water and by effective sewage systems; and by education and rules to encourage people to wash their hands.

Bullying as a public health problem

Bullying can spread like a contagion. A single individual can begin to bully others. The bully may have a personality disorder, may be a lifelong bully, have a degenerative disease,or may be frightened and insecure. The victim may seem to have provoked the bully, or may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter, once bullying behavior gains success, it can be copied and adopted by others. The bully may become the leader of a group. All members in the group come to hold the same set of negative attitudes towards their targets; new members quickly adopt the attitudes and behaviors as symbols of their membership in the group.

Intervention would require a coordinated effort to set limits on bullying behavior; rapid protection and treatment for victims; correction of the conditions in which bullying flourishes; and programs of vacination, i.e.education and training to enable all in the institution to proactively stop bullying from spreading. Targets need access to protective services, including legal remedies.

Prevention requires the development of evidence-based protocols. Managers of institutions must be trained and held accountable for preventing bullying. Conditions which demonstrably lead to bullying must be identified and remedied. For example, when a diversity of people are housed together, there must be rules, staffing, and programs to enable people to adapt and develop positive relationships.

Barriers to implementing a public health program

There is today no mechanism for surveillance—no agency is looking out for instances of bullying. None of the major public agencies in public housing have specific policies on bullying, and as far as I have been able to determine, do not maintain case records and statistics, and do not have specific mechanisms for intervention. The courts in Massachusetts do hear complaints of harassment (bullying) from aggrieved individuals, however the cases that reach the courts probably represent a small fraction of bullying.

There is no concerted effort to develop evidence-based guidelines for preventing or remedying bullying.

Victims of bullying find it extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain relief. Many suffer with complaining because of fear.

Landlords and managers have no enforceable obligation to maintain a bullying-free establishment.

How to stop the bullying

I propose here broad outlines of some of the issues and priorities, including the roles of the Commonwealth, landlords and managers, residents both individually and as groups, social service agencies and first responders, and the community. Landlords/management must have policies and systems to assure a culture of inclusion and to eliminate bullying, and they must be accountable to the Commonwealth.

  • On the individual level: Targeted individuals/victims need support and/or treatment for recovery by mental health experts (and some of the bullies have serious issues); the therapists need to understand abuse, PTSD, as well as group dynamics and have an awareness of the institutional context.
  • On the group level: We need experts in group dynamics and leadership development, such as community organizers and organizational development experts to understand and intervene in situations of social bullying and mobbing. In social bullying, a group of several people attack one or more targets. In mobbing, the management can be involved in addition; and this can lead to the eviction of the target. Current law assumes one bully: one victim, stopping harassment by one member may not be effective in stopping the group. The role of bystanders can be crucial in encouraging, allowing, or stopping bullying.
  • Management: Building managements needs professional experience or training in preventing bullying. We need organizational development consultants to guide change in management. Responsibility needs to track back to owners and investors.
  • Community resources: We need a way to involve first responders and the professionals in the wider community, at least with education and training, and access to expert support and intervention.
  • Education and awareness in the community can help provide a more supportive climate. Making the building more open to the community can be a way of preventing the emergence of a deviant building culture.

    • One or more central offices with teams of experts who can act as consultants, provide intervention teams, etc.
    • A team responsible for surveillance, inspection and enforcement.
    • Management, local agencies, and the courts need access to graded sanctions, e.g., because eviction may seem too harsh and prevent action.
    • Care to make sure the bullies don't game the system, as they seem to do now by misuse of the current laws on harassment. For example, by going to court and seeking orders of protection against a target.
    • Ombudsman function to provide a safety valve.
    • State should support R&D into bullying, including support for pilot programs to implement various ideas for prevention and intervention.


    • Broad educational program to educate and create awareness. Civic leaders, elected officials, religious leaders, business and communal associations


    • Social service professionals and first responders can meet on a regular basis perhaps in a "Community Crisis Intervention Group." Participants can provide advice and support to each other, and can report on emerging or ongoing problems. Should have training on bullying, including evidence-based methods for intervention.



    should receive training, workshops, etc. from qualified consultants so they can understand, recognize, and know how to prevent or intervene in bullying; and be able to guide all staff and residents. Management should be mandated to have clear policies which are communicated to staff and residents, and there must be appropriate enforcement and intervention.

    All STAFF

    in housing need to be trained in appropriate behavior and responses.


    Need to have education, workshops, and guidance in relating to others without resorting to bullying. It may be helpful to have intervention by a consultant such as a community organizer, or others skilled in group dynamics and leadership training.

    An independent tenants' association that is responsive to all residents can help to give residents a sense of control over their environment, and an appropriate means of negotiating with management on community concerns.


    Targets/victims of bullying can experience severe stress, up to and including PTSD. They should have access to psychotherapy with professionals experienced in treating victims of trauma, severe stress, or abuse. Some bullies may well benefit from therapy.


    There are a number of health and situational issues specific to the elderly population. Disease, frailty, lack of social networks, lack of mobility by personal car, and the onset of dementia, Alzehimers; stroke; etc. As a result, an elderly person may pose challenges for caregivers, staff, and other residents. When is their behavior a symptom of illness, and when is it bullying? What is the most appropriate way to handle?

    A layperson or management staff may not be comfortable or know how to relate to a person with a disability. There needs to be some kind of guidance and framework that respects the dignity of all, and can make allowances as appropriate. But there also needs to be appropriate limits on extreme, disruptive behavior. How do we approach this?

    Freedom from bullying should be considered as a universal right. Bullying is an equal opportunity curse, can we get beyond having different rules for the protection of elderly and disabled, and having different agencies and social service personnel for each protected category? Should we?

    Links to the program articles

    Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 1

    Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 2

    Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 3

    Comprehensive program


    {1} Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. New York: Oxford University Press; 2012; pp 70-74

    {2} Halberstadt, Jerry, "Conflict and Bullying in a HUD-subsidized Building for Elderly Residents: A Case Study" 2011 http://photoluminations.com/drupal/?q=node/68

    {3} Winslow, Charles-Edward Amory (1920 Jan 9). "The Untilled Fields of Public Health". Science 51 (1306): 23–33. doi:10.1126/science.51.1306.23. PMID 17838891; in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_health