Newswise — While bullying seems to be an endemic problem throughout American schools, a Westfield State College researcher believes that school culture can have a major influence on the degree to which bullying impacts the students and the quality of education.

Elizabeth Stassinos, associate professor of criminal justice, has designed programs that help area schools combat bullying. Stassinos, a Holyoke, Mass., resident, offers hope that schools can adopt strategies to curb bullying, just as they have dealt with other challenges in education.

“The real answer to bullying is similar to the answer to the problem of creating more effective schools,” Stassinos said. “It includes better training for teachers, more teachers and counselors, smaller class sizes, and support so that bullying can’t go unnoticed.”

“One thing I've learned from reading the bullying literature is the first thing we have to do is to eliminate the audience for the bully because the bullies exist for their audience,” Stassinos said. “The bully's identity has become a performance of violence for others, usually masculine violence, but the performance of violence is now being acted out by women and girls more than in the past, an unfortunate trend.”

“It is encouraging to see our college faculty work so closely with area schools to improve education on all levels,” said Evan S. Dobelle, president of Westfield State. “There are many serious issues, such as bullying, that are significant barriers to achieving a quality education.” In 2006, Stassinos taught a weekly creative writing class to inmates in the women’s unit at the Hampden County Medium Security Facility in Ludlow, Mass. Before long, she began to wonder why some people become bullies and violent criminals, while others do not.

Stassinos is now engaged in research on bullying and used her knowledge to develop and facilitate two staff workshops on bullying at Southwick-Tolland High School in Southwick, Mass. last year.

With the help of guidance counselor Rachel Salvidio, Stassinos trained the staff in current sociological and criminal justice theories and gave them tools for recognizing and addressing bullying.

During her workshops, Stassinos covered issues such as the dropout rates of bullies and victims, training faculty as “first responders” in bullying incidents, and cyberbullying with cell phones and Internet social networking sites such as Facebook.

Salvidio said she feels bullying is a serious problem in all schools, yet school staffs are not given the platform to discuss it on a professional basis. “We, as a school community, were thrilled to have Elizabeth come in and share her expertise with us,” she said.

“We’ve had Elizabeth Stassinos come to Southwick-Tolland Regional High School several times,” Salvidio said. “She’s able to facilitate excellent, professional discussions about the origins of bullying, the effects on the bully and the victim, and what we can do at the high school level by way of prevention and education.”

Using the “violentization” theory of Seton Hall professor and criminologist Lonnie Athens, and renowned psychologist Robert Hare’s research on bullying and psychopathy, Stassinos seeks to learn more about how children are socialized to become violent and why many victims of bullies become bullies themselves.

“Bullies are often victims first and are seeking to perform that victimization on others,” Stassinos said. “It’s so important that teachers and administrators learn the signs and symptoms of bullying. These behaviors are an important issue now with the recent tragic consequences at local schools.”

Stassinos plans to present another bullying workshop this year at the Center School in Holyoke, Mass.

“I’m hoping that these teacher retreats and forums give teachers and counselors a chance to speak freely, describe their hopes for the school, and feel supported by faculty at other schools and at Westfield State,” she said.

In addition to her work on bullying, Stassinos, who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia, studies deviance and cross-cultural anomie, a debilitating feeling resulting from the loss of normal social life. This occurs in such circumstances as wartime and during times of rapid social change or accelerating technology.

Like the late sociologist Robert K. Merton, Stassinos and other criminologists today believe that this tear in the social fabric, between a culture’s goals and its people’s means to achieve these goals, encourages individual criminal behavior.

“At Westfield State, we are trying to create and model the classroom and culture that we think fosters scholarship and harnesses the energy of discussion without creating the aggression and insecurity that can lead to anomie, hopelessness, as well as school and even college bullying, intimidation and aggression,” Stassinos said.

“We use our classrooms to model open dialogue that is small-workshop oriented. For example, our linked courses model an intimate and committed intellectual community with double the academic firepower,” she said.

Stassinos teaches a linked course with Jennifer DiGrazia of the English Department faculty called, “The Writer and the Detective.” This class links two required courses for freshmen and creates community between English composition students, who are also criminal justice majors taking criminology theory for a combined 6-hour course.

“In this way, 20 students get two professors linking the content and form of coursework and create for themselves a community of writers and detectives, who are studying the causes of crime,” she said. “The dynamic is encouraging and the professors are guiding discussion and writing juries every step of the way. The energy that goes into bullying and hazing can be channeled into learning.”

Stassinos’ anthropological work includes essays on the study of deviance by Boasian anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Boasian anthropology is based on the teaching and writing of Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas. This “culture and personality” school of anthropology places culture as the fundamental key to understanding race, ethnicity and gender.

Stassinos teaches courses on criminology, deviance theory, and prison culture and educational rehabilitation with an anthropological perspective.