Bullying isn’t a new problem. But in recent years, it has outgrown its reputation as an annoyance of childhood and turned into something much more dangerous. And sometimes harder to spot.

While physical aggression is on the rise among teens, so is a subtler — but deeply disturbing — form of bullying called relational aggression. Especially common among girls, this new breed of bullying consists of exclusion, rumor spreading, alliance building, and cyber-bullying, which many blame for the widely publicized 2007 suicide of Texas teen Megan Meier, who was mercilessly harassed online by classmates.

Whatever form it takes — verbal, physical or covert – bullying creates an environment of fear and intimidation. Schools are responding to this new environment with more security and tighter restrictions on students. And while those measures help to alleviate some of the fear, individual teachers also have the power to keep their students safe from bullies.

Here are three ways to intervene, protect and root out bullying at your school.

Start by exploring your own understanding of—and experience with—bullying

Try to think beyond bullying generally to specific events that happened at your school. Who was involved? What happened? When did it take place? Where was it?

Ask yourself:

  1. What kind of bullying behaviors do you witness in your school?
  2. How does it make you feel?
  3. How do you respond now?

Do any of the answers surprise you? What would you like to change about your responses? This goal of this exercise is to prepare yourself mentally, so that you can be ready to take a stand when bullying becomes a real issue in your classroom.

Intervene and educate

The Safe Schools Coalition, formed by a group of educators, recommends a two-step approach for teachers who witness an act of bullying:

First, Stop the Behavior

Using a clear and strong voice, stop the offending behavior with a simple command. Rehearse responses like this:

  • Cut it out!
  • Keep your hands to yourself!
  • Whoa, that is not OK!
  • Leave him alone!
  • Hey, that was uncalled for!

Second, Take the Opportunity To Educate

It is essential that you use this opportunity to name the offending behavior and educate students as to why it’s unacceptable. If you only stop the behavior, students might think, “It’s OK to bully Matt, but not during math” or “The teacher doesn’t like us to be loud.”

Try using some of these responses, depending on the situation:

  • That is unacceptable. I will not allow racial discrimination in this classroom.
  • That’s bullying. It’s against school rules. And besides what business is it of yours if somebody’s gay?
  • That’s mean and it’s sexual harassment. That behavior could get you suspended.
  • Do you guys know what that word means? It’s a put down for a person’s religion. That’s like putting someone down for his or her race.

Remember that, in that moment, you are not only speaking to the bully and the target but to every student who witnesses and overhears bullying at the school. A well-planned message not only interrupts the harassment, but it also has the potential to prevent more threatening behavior down the road.

Empower students to build a community of respect and empathy

Through storytelling, small group discussion and individual reflection, teachers can get students to take an active, personal role in creating a more inclusive school environment.

Ask your students to consider the situations they’ve witnessed or overheard in school when bullying was taking place. Get them talking with these questions:

  • What is one situation when you would feel safe speaking up?
  • In that situation, what would you feel comfortable saying?
  • Now think of a situation when you do not feel safe speaking up. What’s that like?
  • What can you honestly commit to today that will keep you safe and make a change for the better in your school?

However you approach bullying at your school, remember that you are a powerful influence – even though you’re just one teacher. “Legally and ethically, you must do whatever is necessary to stop harassment against children and teens based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language or physical or mental abilities,” say the educators of the Safe Schools Coalition. “Seeing you stand up against bullying will make every child … feel safer at school. Only when they feel safe, can students learn.”

Download this lesson plan