Academically At-Risk High School

Academically At-Risk High School Students: Bullying, A Phenomenological Perspective
Dr. Brad Grot, Dr. Annette Abel, and Dr. Holly Abel
Lindsey Wilson College
210 Lindsey Wilson Street
Columbia, KY  42728



This investigation queried the phenomenological perspective of the school counselor within the high school setting. The counselors’ perspective was sought in this qualitative investigation to determine the impact of bullying on the academically at-risk population. The literature at present has neglected a population of high school students. The omitted population is the academically at-risk population. Researchers have identified many sub-populations of the “at risk” school category that traditionally included: culture, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. The academically at-risk student is another category and is inclusive of traditional “at risk” students. This population experiences (1) a grade point average below 2.0—C, (2) absenteeism more than 15 days in a 90-day semester and (3) behavioral issues that impact successful matriculation.  At present, no research has been conducted about the academically at-risk high school student, and how bullying, contextually, impacts students, and how their counselors understand and perceive bullying.


Michael Brewer (Kotz, 2009), Raymond Chase (Judd, 2010), Tyler Clementi (Foderaro, 2010), and Jeffrey Johnston (Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2004) all share one commonality—they have been victims of bullies. Unfortunately, of all the names listed, only one is a survivor of bullying; the rest are deceased because of bullying. Tyler Clementi received national attention in 2010 when he took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi recognized no other option than to end his own life after his roommate posted online a secret, sexual encounter with another man. Similarly, Raymond Chase and Jeffrey Johnston committed suicide via hanging as a result of bullying. Lastly, Michael Brewer, a 15-year-old from Deerfield Beach, Florida was bullied by five youths, who doused Michael with rubbing alcohol and then set him on fire. The victim was burned over 65% of his body and will never recover from the internal and external trauma.

Brewer, Chase, Clementi, and Johnston are only four victims of an omnipresent, universal form of hatred. Bullying is a form of violence that has been recognized as aggression and has been seminally defined by Olweus (1993) as having the following characteristics: (1) an individual is harmed; (2) the victim is not equal in size, strength, or power to the bully; and (3) the victim is abused repeatedly over a period of time. Likewise, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (“What is bullying,” n.d.) defines the bullying act quite like Olweus (1993), yet, builds upon Olweus’s seminal definition. Bullying is multifaceted and composed of three specific types: verbal, social, and physical (“What is bullying,” n.d.).

Despite the prevalence, importance, and significance of bullying behaviors they have not received adequate research until recently (Lee, 2010). A short time ago, researchers began to concede the importance of social contexts that may well be explicative of bullying behavior (Espelage & Swearer, 2004; Morrison, 2006). Lee (2010) researched bullying behaviors utilizing an ecological system theory framework, demonstrating an evolving multilevel ecological model. Lee (2010) identified a best-fitting structural model of bullying behaviors and discovered that the ecological multi-level model accounted for 56% in variance in bullying behaviors. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems approach to bullying behaviors was utilized to guide this investigation. Bronfenbrenner’s theory (1979) is one that concentrates on the individual child, and these researchers have chosen to follow his theoretical tenets of an ecological systemic approach to investigate bullying behaviors.

Statement of the Problem

Quantitative research on bullying has looked at students’ characteristics such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, health status, and learning/developmental disabilities (Barboza, et al., 2009; Birkett, Espelage, & Koenig, 2009; Espelage & Horne, 2008; Rose, Monda-Amaya, & Espelage, 2009).  Contextual factors such as family background and relationships, school connectedness, and school climate have also been investigated (Espelage & Swearer, 2004; Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, & Haynie, 2007). In their review of research on bullying and victimization, Hong and Espelage (2012) concluded that racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ students, students with health problems, students with learning/developmental disabilities, and low-income students are at risk for bullying victimization in schools.

After completing a thorough literature review, it was found that researchers have neglected a significant population of high school students. The omitted student population is the academically at-risk population. Thus, the gap that exists at present is that no research has been conducted in reference to the academically at-risk high school student, and how bullying, within these exclusive at-risk high school environments, impacts students, and how their counselors understand and perceive bullying.

Purpose and Significance of the Study

The purpose of the current study is to gain phenomenological insight from high school counselors who serve the academic at-risk student about the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” bullying presents itself and how it is perceived and understood from the perspective of the school counselor. Utilizing the phenomenological perspective, it is hoped that an understanding of bullying as experienced by the school counselor will be found by searching for commonality among lived experiences.

The importance of this study, primarily, is that no research to date has explored the phenomenological perspective of the school counselor about the at-risk high school population regarding bullying. This omission has ignored an important aspect of the experience of the bullied at-risk student.  By not fully understanding the ways in which the school counselor makes meaning of this phenomenon, educators cannot fully develop best practices for the academic at-risk students regarding this issue.

Research Questions

The overarching question in the current study is: What are the perceptions of bullying with at-risk students from the perspective of the school counselor within the school environment?  The sub-questions posed are (1) How do school counselors make meaning of the incidence of bullying within the academic at-risk school social environment? (2) What factors do school counselors feel influence bullying in at-risk students?

Literature Review

As portrayed in Charles Dickens’s literary classic, Oliver Twist, bullying has long been associated with childhood (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003).  However, despite the long-standing recognition of bullying in the literary world of fiction, bullying has only recently attracted the attention of scholars.  As a point of reference, the first study of the phenomenon was published only 49 years ago in 1969 by a school physician, P. P. Heinemann (Olweus, 1993). Subsequent to Dr. Heinemann’s study, Olweus (1978, 1993) conducted an extensive empirical inquiry in Scandinavia during the 1970s and 1980s.

According to Vaillancourt et al. (2003), bullying is a multifaceted behavior that is displayed by both males and females and has plagued the school system for eons.  School bullying has been a topic of discussion among educators, parents, and students (Patchin & Hinduja, 2010) for the last five decades, the topic has received attention from noteworthy researchers (Ericson, 2001; Olweus, 1978). There has been a plethora of research within the United States and internationally on the prevalence of student bullying and the correlates of bullying (Grossman et al., 2009).

As bullying has continued to draw attention internationally by educators, parents, researchers, and victims, bullying is now being recognized as a behavior that is “not a rite of passage,” or acceptable behavior, and federal and state governments have begun to take proactive action. On the Federal level, Title IX of the 1972 Federal Education Amendment prohibits harassing behavior in schools. Title IX states that harassment includes a pattern of behavior or a single event, perpetrated by anyone that creates an intimidating or hostile environment where the targeted person cannot work or learn. Similarly, the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution has been used to protect against bullying and states that all schools are responsible for equally protecting all students, and that all citizens are due equal protection under the law (Ericson, 2001; Olweus, 1978).

A review of the literature finds that there are inconsistent findings in relation to the correlates of bullying.  Most of the studies have used quantitative research designs, and the inconsistencies may be related to varying definitions of bullying (Vaillancourt et al., 2003) and diverse operational definitions of the correlates in terms of how they were defined and measured.  While there are some qualitative studies looking at bullying from the perspective of the child or adolescent (Mishna, Wiener, & Pepler, 2008; Thornberg, 2007), there are limited qualitative research designs that explore bullying from a more holistic perspective, and few qualitative investigations of bullying from the perspective of the school counselor.  The goal of the current study was to address this gap in the literature.

Research Methodology

While a great deal of quantitative research has been done about bullying, there is limited authoritative research on the topic from the perspective of the school counselor who works with at-risk students.  The current research investigated the school counselors’ phenomenological perceptions of bullying in an academically at-risk high school. For the current study, a qualitative methodology was used to explore the social phenomena of bullying among the academically at-risk high school population.  The qualitative paradigm was selected because there are multiple realities/perceptions of bullying from the point of the individuals involved and the context. The goal was to ascertain context bound generalizations while utilizing flexibility in methodology. A phenomenological approach was utilized in this study as described by Edmund Husserl. One of the key principles of phenomenological inquiry is to ground the radical foundations of knowledge so the attacks on its rationality and procedures can be overcome.  Husserl understood that one would have to focus on how individuals perceive objects and events through their conscious state (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2008). The researchers also employed Creswell’s (2007) phenomenology method to suspend all judgment about what is real (i.e., epoche). Epoche or bracketing was the first step in data analysis where the researcher sets aside their perceptions to understand the experiences of the participants of the study (Moustakas, 1994).


Purposeful sampling seeks information-rich cases which can be studied in depth (Patton, 1990).  For this study on bullying, purposeful sampling was utilized for obtaining data specific to bullying within the at-risk high school environment from the perception of the school counselor.  The researchers selected a sample of ten school counselors who worked in high schools that serve academically at-risk students and who had experienced bullying. There were twenty high schools located in eight different states.  Each high school had one school counselor. Population was limited to 300 students in all locations.


The institution that had been chosen for this study had 20 school counselors.  The selected sites for this research study encompassed more than eight states, with many of the sites considered to be urban or metropolitan. The researchers selected participants randomly from the institutional directory and contacted them via telephone.  If the counselor was willing to participate in the study, he/she would be informed that at the end of our conversation the researcher would email them an Informed Consent to sign, scan, and return by email. Also, at that time the participant was informed that a Demographic Questionnaire would be sent to them in a separate email.  A mutually convenient time to conduct the interview would then be set. Lastly, upon receipt of the Informed Consent and Demographic Questionnaire the researchers emailed the Interview Questions to the participants for their review prior to the actual telephone interview.

Recording, Collection and Analysis of Data

For this study, the researchers selected the form of telephone interviews which were chosen in part due to logistics, but also due to purposeful sampling.  Creswell (2007) recognized that the locale of the participants’ is not of consequence; however, emphatically, he cited that, most importantly, the participating individuals’ must have experienced the same phenomenon that is being explored and capable of articulating their conscious experiences (p. 111).

Once the data was collected, the researchers proceeded to read the narratives from each participant from beginning to end.  While reading, the researchers followed the ideology Moustakas (1994) proffered by studying the data which was in front of them.  The researchers implemented the modified version of the Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen methodology to analyze the data (Moustakas, 1994). The step-by-step method that was utilized is as follows.  The researchers began with a thorough description of their experience of the phenomena of bullying. Next, the researchers found statements in the interviews of the school counselors about how they experienced bullying, which included listing of significant statements, also called horizontalization of the data.  This was an ongoing process in which each of the individual responses received equal significance, while simultaneously developing a record of non-repetitive, non-overlapping statements.

Summary of Participants’ Responses

Attempting to answer the question, “What are the perceptions of bullying with at-risk students from the perspective of the school counselor within the school environment,” the researcher broke the question down into two sub-questions. The sub-questions posed were (1) How do school counselors make meaning of the incidence of bullying within the academic at-risk school social environment? and (2) What factors do school counselors feel influence bullying in at-risk students? A semi-structured interview was utilized that allowed the participants to respond appropriately. The sample consisted of 10 school counselors, all were employed at the time of the interview, and all were licensed or endorsed by each respective governing body in each state. Through the data analysis process several themes began to develop with five major themes emerging, all equal rank and value. First, electronic devices/media, students would cyber bully overtly or covertly. For example, a picture of a gay or lesbian couple kissing would be texted to all students; the couple would be ridiculed, embarrassed, and threatened. Second, exposure to violence/bullying, this was an acceptable and expected behavior in their day-to-day environment. Third, families often modeled the bullying behavior of the student and thus it became an acceptable and learned trait. Forth, the individual’s peer/social environment impact their behavior. For example, in the socioecological perspective peers mimic the behaviors of others in their network (e.g., smoking marijuana was a practice that virtually all participated in daily since adolescence). Fifth, school climate and teacher involvement both have the potential to greatly impact the student. Is the teacher proactive or reactive? In other words, phones, for example does the teacher wait until an incident results in a lock down or does the teacher take the phone from the student. When reflecting upon the themes, they are systemic events that initiate with the student, the family, the community, the county, state and federal government. The dominant recurring event in all the themes is the student modeling the behavior they observe in their life systems; including the family system and other systems in which the student interacts. These findings are a significant addition to the research as they add breadth and depth to our holistic understanding of bullying.

Significance of the Study and Implications for Practice

The importance of this study, primarily, was that no research to date had explored the phenomenological perspective of the school counselor about the at-risk high school population regarding bullying. This omission had ignored an important aspect of the experience of the bullied at-risk student.  By not fully understanding the ways in which the school counselor makes meaning of this phenomenon, educators and counselors cannot fully develop best practices for the academic at-risk students regarding this issue. The potential value of this study to the field of counseling and education is encompassing since bullying does not occur in isolation. Bronfenbrenner (1979) cited that bullying impacts the high school student systemically through peers, home, school, work, and church, for example.

The implications for this study focused on bullying from the school counselors’ phenomenological perspective with the at-risk high school student population. The qualitative research design of this study aided in discovering context bound generalizations while utilizing flexibility in methodology. A phenomenological approach was utilized that suspended all judgment. Further, epoche or bracketing was the first step in data analysis where the researchers sets aside their perceptions to understand the experiences of the participants of the study (Moustakas, 1994).

Through this process of data analysis researchers discovered consistent, overlapping statements by study participants that revealed five themes including electronic devices/media, exposure to violence/bullying, family involvement, peer/social environment, school climate and teacher involvement. This study aids in revealing components associated with bullying contextually from an ecological system approach via sharing the lived experiences of the school counselors with at-risk high school students. Based on the five themes that emerged, the overall implications and recommendations specifically recognized in this study is that bullying is a social phenomenon and in order to be perceived correctly, school counselors, as well as mental health counselors, need to be trained about the social context and its impact upon bullying in general. Additionally, school administrators, school counselors, school teachers, and parents need further education in reference to bullying and the relevant factors that extend beyond the individual student and school. Bullying is a societal problem where the student is the epicenter of the behavior. For change to occur bullying needs to be addressed holistically in the manner as offered by Bronfenbrenner (1979) and Lee (2010) inclusive of the following: (1) the student, (2) microsystem, (3) mesosystem, (4) ecosystem, (5) macrosystem and (6) the chronosystem. Bullying, in this study, demonstrated that it is a bioecological model. The bullying starts at home and is encouraged in the different systems in which the student interacts.


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