For more than 25 years, faculty member Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., has conducted research focused on issues around youth violence and has dedicated her career to creating interventions, policies, and laws that protect students and make schools safer.

Espelage, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the UNC School of Education, has established herself as one of the world’s leading academic authorities on student well-being, school safety, and bullying.

Oct. 25-27, 2023 — during World Bullying Prevention Month — Espelage and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will host the next World Anti-Bullying Forum, a biennial convening of international scholars, practitioners, and policymakers focused on understanding and ending bullying among young people.

Espelage is credited with introducing the notion that school-based bullying is best understood as a behavior that emerges over time, is maintained as a group phenomenon, and serves as a precursor to other forms of youth violence.

Her research and advocacy continue to create impact in her field and in schools.

“When we started this work in the early ’90s, one state in this country had an anti-bullying law,” Espelage said. “Every state has some form of legislation now.”

Espelage can credit more than 275 refereed journal articles, 75 book chapters, and eight books to her name, making her one of the world’s most-cited scholars in her field. Her work has attracted more than $16 million in research funding. And she continues to mentor equally prolific doctoral students who play an integral role in accelerating our understandings of a ranging and complex discipline.

Her accolades are many. In 2018, she was elected to the National Academy of Education. She has received the American Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Prevention Science and the APA’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy. She is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, the Association of Psychological Science, and the APA’s Divisions 15 (Educational Psychology) and 17 (Counseling Psychology).

Espelage regularly advises members of Congress and has led webinars for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Justice. She served as a consultant for the website, the Department of Health and Human Services’ national anti-bullying campaign, and NIH’s Pathways to Prevention initiative to address bullying and youth suicide.

She has advised hundreds of government officials from the U.S. and other nations, and frequently leads training sessions and international conversations that share knowledge and evidence-based practices that work to stop school-based violence. In 2017, she delivered the first-ever keynote address for the World Anti-Bullying Forum held in Stockholm.

Following is a Q&A with Espelage on the importance of the World Anti-Bullying Forum, what’s changed since she delivered the Forum’s first address in 2017, how bullying and bullying prevention work differs around the world, and what role bullying plays in a broader view of school-based violence.

What does it mean for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to host the World Anti-Bullying Forum?

The WABF has been held twice in Sweden and once in Dublin, and it’s a forum that brings researchers, practitioners, and policymakers together to address the question: “How can we prevent bullying?”

Why it’s important is that this forum has not been held in the U.S., and currently we don’t have any international bullying prevention activities such as this happening in the U.S. We used to have the International Bullying Prevention Association conferences, but they haven’t met since 2019. That really has been a loss to the field. This forum coming to the U.S. — as opposed to China, Russia, and Norway — is a big deal.

What people may not understand is that UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State, and area HBCUs including North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University have been engaged in decades of work on bullying, so it’s almost like we’re bringing it home. We have prevention science and public health here at UNC-Chapel Hill. Duke and UNC’s psychology programs have dominated the developmental psychology field and what we’ve known about bullying for the last 50 years. There’s a huge concentration of bully researchers and practitioners in the Research Triangle so in some ways it really is celebrating our origins and our roots.

That said, it’s also important to know the bullying efforts in the U.S. have lagged behind those of other countries. We led in the beginning, but have gone backward because of the political climate around bullying and social-emotional learning.

How important is this event and anti-bullying research for the U.S. right now?

When you review the systematic reviews or the meta-analyses, or you’re examining how effective certain intervention programs are across the world, we in the U.S. fare at the bottom. The reductions of bullying in European countries and internationally — in Australia and Canada — they’ve done a better job than the U.S.

For U.S.-based researchers, we need to figure out why that is. What is it about the U.S. context that we have only modest reductions of 10-12% of bullying, but then our colleagues have reductions that range from 20-50% in some places. This event offers a venue for us to interact with our peers, particularly ones in Canada who have been very, very successful at reducing bullying at higher rates. Then learning from Australia and Africa and Asia; we’re going to be able to talk to them about their success in their home countries. It’s just a good reset for us to figure out why is it that our peers (1) have been successful in reducing bullying and sustaining those reductions where we have not, and (2) have done so much more in the area of cyberbullying and the metaverse.

There’s going to be a theme here about the metaverse. We’ll have the chance to talk to peers about some of the best cyberbullying intervention programs that have come out of Finland, Germany, Spain, and Italy. We have almost zero cyberbullying interventions in this country because we focus so much on face-to-face bullying and have ignored the influence of media and technology. And now, we’re hoping to bring in Meta to have conversations about the worlds that kids are creating. A lot of people think this is new. Second Life has been around for decades, and Meta reminds me of Second Life.

This WABF is going to give us an opportunity to recharge and rethink… maybe stop doing the things we’re doing in K-12 settings that are not moving the needle. I think it’s going to be a good combination of topics and ones that can help us rethink some of our strategies in big systems.

That said, it’s not fair to compare the U.S. to, say, Finland, a smaller, less diverse country.

With so many facets to preventing bullying, especially culturally specific ones, what are your hopes for this WABF?

Each country has a lot to offer. U.S. researchers have a lot to offer, but it’s not going to be the U.S.A. show. It’s going to be about representation. What we’re trying to do for the keynotes is to have a keynote person that represents each of the continents, and that’s never been done. We’re trying to get our African colleagues in. It’s a challenge, but we’re going to try to do that.

We need good scientists with really engaging, meaningful presentations.

One thing that will be addressed during this conference, and this is a real point of contention, we have this definition of bullying that has recently been challenged by some scholars across the globe. At the last WABF, they partnered with UNESCO and a scientific working group to propose a revised definition of bullying. That work is ongoing, and they’re going to be present and be our partners in 2023 as well. Hopefully, at the end of this next forum, we have a definition of bullying that will capture a fuller picture of it and help to align all of our research going forward.

This forum really is a unique space for researchers to bring research to the practitioners who are in the field. Usually, you have either just a practitioner conference or just a research conference. Here we will, of course, have the research keynotes, but then we will create experiences to bring in researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and, equally important, youth for dialogue. We’re bringing in youth because why hold a conference to talk about youth without youth. We’re hopeful for panels and expressive arts to show how youth address these kinds of issues. We’ll see. We’re in the beginning stages of planning.

You delivered the keynote address at the first WABF in 2017. What’s changed since then? Have we made progress decreasing bullying?

I remember being in Stockholm, and I tried to drive home the point that we have to address bias-based bullying in our prevention efforts because everybody was talking about just a generic kind of bullying.

I said, “No. Bullying is situated in systems of oppression and power and dominance.” I remember it because nobody was talking about how marginalized populations, including gender and sexual minority youth, youth with disabilities, and youth of color experience bullying at higher rates than peers not from these historically marginalized groups. The audience in the first WABF was not diverse. Most bullying researchers do not match the changing demographics of youth in U.S. schools and those across the globe. That’s a problem, but I’m trying to help fix that. And I am fixing it with my students, the majority of whom are of color or identify with intersecting marginalized populations.

But after that first forum, we saw the priority in Dublin and the priority most recently in Sweden again was predominantly biased-based bullying and aggression. The community heard that message, they paid attention to it.

And if you go to the most recent program in Sweden, the two pre-conferences, one was on racial bullying and one was on prevention of sexual violence for which bullying is a precursor for some youth. That was not in the program except for my keynote in 2017. That has changed tremendously and necessarily.

Many countries do not collect social identity information on a lot of their surveys. They aren’t even asking if survey respondents are from immigrant populations or people coming from war-torn countries. They don’t ask about race or ethnicity. They don’t ask about sexual orientation.

Things are changing, but more work needs to be done.

So, bias-based bullying is something that the U.S. is teaching everyone else?

Absolutely. The U.K. is the only other leader in this space. The U.K. has always been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights and homophobia, but less so race and ethnicity. But I think the U.S. leads the field in bias-based approaches and identifying systems of oppression.

U.S.-based researchers do a great job, a better job on bias-based bullying, bullying that arises from homophobia, racism… Many of the countries whose researchers will come to this event don’t even ask about race and ethnicity in their surveys. We’re leading the field in that way.

The reason some countries measure homophobic bullying or measure sexual violence is because of our work here in the U.S.

Much like we’ve had to look at our history in the U.S., Australia is also doing this. I’ve been researching homophobic name-calling and what now white people would call “racialized bullying,” which I don’t even like to call it that. It’s racism. We’ve been studying that for over 20 years.

As [other countries] can inform us on the intervention end, we can expand their thinking about that world of bullying in terms of racism, homophobia, and how sexual harassment is the precursor to sexual violence. And my work has shown that.

The U.S. seems to have many more school-based violence problems than other countries. How much does bullying play into that?

Well, we also know that there are a lot of kids who are bullied that don’t engage in school shootings, right? Of the kids in K-12 schools, 15% are chronically victimized by bullying.

What we do know though is that, and I have to say this because people don’t talk about it, suicide is violence. It is violence turned inward. And so one way to frame this is to say: If we do not attend to the climate that perpetuates bias-based bullying and victimization and marginalization and ostracization and lack of connectedness, we’re not only going to continue to see the increases of suicidal ideation, depression, mental health challenges, there is a likelihood that we’re going to continue to see the suicide rate climb. And those kids will get younger and younger. This also takes into account that we have limited mental health access for kids and very few schools have mental health-based programs. The research shows this.

Maybe more to the point in your question, there is a reason to believe that there will be less connectedness in schools, but I can’t link it to school shootings because there’s just too many kids who are victimized and don’t do that.

We know from a Secret Service report that we’ve had, at the time I last saw, 138 mass shootings, many of them school shootings. I think they’ll start analyzing those data, but bullying is one predictor of kids engaging in school violence, whether that’s bringing a knife for protection or a gun for protection. We know we have guns on campus — largely because kids want to protect themselves in middle schools and high schools.

If you look at Ron Astor’s work out of UCLA, they have a lot of guns in Los Angeles Unified School District, and those guns are largely for protection because of victimization.

What additional opportunities do you see for this gathering?

I think this World Anti-Bullying Forum is going to be critical because we’re also going to have to talk about the consequences of this global pandemic. By the time people submit their abstracts, I think enough data will exist that we see a COVID lens on some of them.

I think there is some fear that, because school districts around the world were so focused on finding their kids and getting them back into school, there hasn’t been a lot of bullying prevention or social emotional learning or attention paid to school climate.

When you have 50% of kids in L.A. who are truant, you’re spending a lot of time chasing those kids down. Some kids went home and don’t want to come back. They don’t know how to interact with other kids.

How are we going to teach them social skills? Some kids can’t do basic social interactions, so I think we’ll be looking into that, too.

This story was originally published by the UNC School of Education.