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Food Services ESPs and Bullying Prevention

School Cafeterias a Common Location for Bullying

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Bullying behavior is a growing concern among America’s educators. Bullying is generally defined as repeated aggressive acts intended to do harm, and is characterized by a power or status difference between the students. Bullying includes not only physical aggression such as hitting or stealing, but also verbal aggression, such as threatening, name calling, spreading rumors, socially rejecting and isolating someone, or cyberbullying (where perpetrators can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet).

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2006-2007, one- third of U.S. students ages 12 through 18 reported being bullied. Students who have been bullied report feeling depressed, anxious, and isolated. Many have low self-esteem. Their school attendance and performance may suffer. And in some cases, as the nation has seen recently, they are so tormented they take their own lives.

Even though there are many training programs that can pro- vide educators with tools to intervene in bullying situations, bullying often occurs outside the classroom, beyond teachers’ reach. Research consistently points to the cafeteria as a prime location where bullying occurs and where students feel unsafe. The unstructured nature of most cafeteria settings contributes to students’ feeling that most classroom rules don’t apply there. Often, well-intentioned bullying prevention programs don’t take into consideration the special context of the cafeteria, and how food service workers and other education staff can contribute to a more orderly cafeteria setting which, in turn, contributes to less opportunity for students to bully one another. Also, since most food service personnel are from the community, they are uniquely positioned to understand local factors that may be affecting students’ lunchroom behaviors.

The cafeteria should be seen as a school context ripe for bully- ing prevention and intervention, where staff can curb bullying and promote a positive school climate. A review of research on school connectedness suggests that the quality of students’ social interactions with peers and staff in a school setting influences their social behavior as well as academic development. More specifically, research indicates that adding structure to the cafeteria and increasing adult monitoring during the lunch period are associated with decreases in student aggression and increases in pro-social interactions among students.

Nevertheless, in many schools across the country, teachers don’t supervise children during the lunch period. Instead food service workers, paraeducators, parents, and volunteer community members with little or no training are recruited to supervise students in the cafeteria. This should alert us to the need to include food service workers in bullying prevention and intervention training.

NEA has long been committed to bullying and harassment prevention and intervention. For decades, members have received training on how to recognize and intervene in student-to-student bullying situations. In order to assess the opinions of education support professionals as well as teachers on issues relating to bullying, NEA conducted surveys in 2010 and 2012. Among the 2,900 ESPs surveyed in 2010, 423 were food service employees. An additional 408 responded to bullying questions as part of an overall ESP survey in 2012.

What Food Services Employees Said

They witness bullying. Food services workers were less likely than other ESPs to report seeing a student being bullied at their school. However, about half of them reported witnessing it as fre- quently as several times a month. Nearly 10% saw bullying daily. They viewed bullying as a significantly greater problem at their school than did other ESPs.

Cafeteria workers are less likely to hear reports of bullying from students and parents than other ESPs. Approximately one in four of the food services ESP surveyed indicated that a student reported bullying to them within the past month. Only 8% reported that a parent has spoken to them about bullying.

They feel it's their job to intervene. A majority of food services workers surveyed—84%—report that it is “their job” to intervene when they see bullying situations.

They need training on bullying prevention and intervention. A significant majority—86%—of the food services ESP reported that their school district has a bullying policy, but only a third of them said they received training on that policy.

They are more likely to say they need training on specific forms of bullying. More than two-thirds of food services workers reported that they need additional training on how to address different forms of bullying—physical, verbal, and relational—and in situations involving children being bullied because of sexual orientation, race, gender, and religion. Training is particularly needed to address bullying in the form of negative remarks about students who are overweight, with more than 70% of food workers express- ing such a need.

They need to be invited/encouraged to join school committees on bullying prevention. Among all ESPs, food services workers are the group least likely to be involved in formal bully- ing prevention efforts in their schools. Only 12% reported being involved in formal school teams, committees or prevention programs dealing with bullying. 

Like other EsPs, food services workers report feeling slightly more connected to their school community than teachers, which influences bullying intervention. Connectedness is the belief by adults in the school that they are regarded as individuals and professionals involved in the learning process. Research has shown there is an important link between feeling connected to the school and being comfortable interven- ing with all forms of bullying among all types of students.

They are likely to live in their school community. The 2012 NEA survey found that 81% of food services ESPs live in the school community where they work, a rate more than twice as high as that of teachers. This means they know the students and their families, and can be an invaluable resource when seeking answers to bullying incidents.


Inform Yourself and Your Association

  • Visit , a good go-to source for resources about how to help bullied students and how to prevent bullying in your school.
  • Seek input and collect data from other school staff to whom students go for support.
  • Request a bullying prevention and intervention training session from NEA at (there is a training link). Make sure the training is scheduled at a time that is convenient for food services ESPs to attend.
  • Ask your school district to provide training on the con-tent of current policies for bullying prevention and inter- vention. Work with your local affiliate to ensure these trainings are scheduled at times that are convenient for food services ESPs to attend along with other school staff.
  • Become involved in bullying prevention teams, committees and other activities at your school or education association.
  • Initiate meetings with other staff to share concerns about bullying in general or specific students in particular.

NEA’s official website for the NEA Bully Free: It Starts with Me campaign.
Guidance on bullying from the U.S. Department of Education.
National PTA guide on safeguarding children from bullying.   
Education Support Professionals website with links to bullying resources, including the 2010 NEA Nationwide Study of Bullying.
Educator Tip Sheets are available, such as: How to Intervene to Stop Bullying: Tips for On-the-Spot Intervention at School.


Leff S., Power T., Costigan T., and Manz P. Assessing the climate of the playground and lunchroom: Implications for bullying prevention programming. School Psychology Review. September 2003: 32(3): 418-430. Available from Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA.

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