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Norway’s way to fix bullying: Appoint a citywide ‘ombudsman’

It was a tragedy that unfolded New Year’s Eve, when a 13-year-old died of emaciation in Norway.

But the story begins years earlier. In 2012, the girl’s mother went on television to talk about the bullying her child faced because of her eating disorder. The school had been informed but did little to address the issue, parents said. The girl changed schools but faced the same kids in middle school. The bullying got to the girl, her parents said, and intensified her mental illness.

The circumstances of the teen’s death are being investigated, and her mother has been arrested for neglect. But officials say bullying may have been at least partially to blame.

And the incident has sparked a national conversation on bullying. Norway Education Minister Torbjorn Roe Isaksen suggested that more bullies should be transferred to new schools. “It is a familiar pattern that it is often the bullying victim that ends up switching schools. I think that is a mistake,” he told the Local.

Oslo has its own solution – the city has appointed a bullying ombudsman. In that role, Kjerstin Owren will work with the city’s day-cares and public schools. In that position, she’ll oversee more than 80,000 students. She’ll work directly with schools on their bullying-prevention programs, and she’ll also serve as a resource for parents who feel like their children’s institution isn’t doing enough, and offer counseling to individual kids.

“We came to the conclusion that most of the work carried out by the bullying ombud officials involved ongoing training in the area. But there was a desire to begin preventive work much earlier, as early as day care. And that it lasts for the entire school career,” researcher Christine Hvitsand, who helped develop the idea of an ombudsman, told the Local. “Good social environments start as early as in day care, and this is where good environments are established that lead to good learning environments later on.”

Anti-bullying (or, as it’s called in Norway, mobbing) campaigns have been a staple of the country for decades.

The scientific field of bullying was developed in the country in the 1970s. Its leader, Dan Olweus, developed a definition of the phenomenon that’s still used by government officials and scholars. He also created the first prevention program, called the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

By law, Norwegian schools are required to use this approach to deal with conflict. Schools that follow OBPP offer an extensive anti-bullying curriculum and clear rules about what behavior is and isn’t tolerated. Administrators conduct regular assessments of the bullying climate in schools, and teachers meet regularly to discuss bullying and strategies for diffusing conflict. Schools that follow OBPP are also expected to develop a system of ensuring adult supervision of students outside the classroom.

It’s been shown to reduce bullying by about 50 percent in Norwegian schools. (Other countries have had much less success.) According to Psychology Today, it’s the most widely used and emulated program in the world.

But still, students are suffering. In Norway, 63,000 pupils are regularly bullied, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Education and Training. That’s 10 percent of the country’s school-age population. Gifted students, children who receive poor grades and young smokers are particularly vulnerable, according to researchers. In March 2014, a young teen named Odin Olsen Andersgard from the city of Aurskog, South Norway, committed suicide after years of suffering bullying at school.