The father of anti-bullying programs: born in Sweden

The colossal impact of a new perspective on bullying

Julia Rooke By Julia Rooke

So how do you prevent bullying? Legislation can punish effectively but can you educate children NOT to bully? One of the most widespread programs in use across the United States was, in fact, conceived in Scandinavia by Swedish professor Dan Olweus at the University of Bergen in Norway.


It was in 1999, in the wake of the Columbine massacre in Colorado in which 12 students and a teacher were killed, that the US Department of Justice  selected the Olweus Bully Prevention Program  as a model for their national violence prevention scheme.  Since then the Olweus Program has been used in some 8000 US schools. It is also being used in Canada, the UK, Iceland, Germany and Ukraine.

In Norway the program has been shown to reduce bullying up to 50% and produce marked reductions in reports of vandalism, fighting, theft, and truancy.

Some of Olweus most notable success stories in the USA include three elementary schools in California that reported a 21% decrease in bullying after just one year. In Arizona several schools recorded a reduction of more than a quarter. The latest school to adopt Olweus  is Great Neck Middle School in Virginia Beach, VA.


“Bully prevention makes financial sense:  on two occasions schools have had to pay up to $4million in damages.”
According to Dr Marlene Snyder, Director of Development for  the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme at Clemson University South Carolina, bully prevention has to become a part of a school’s  ‘risk management’ strategy.  “Schools are normally only insured to pay out damages of around $1million” says Marlene. Marlene cites incidents in which schools were forced to pay out millions to young victims of attempted suicide who were left severely disabled. Clearly many schools just aren’t insured for that kind of pay out. “Running a prevention program can seem costly until you consider the cost of not protecting children”.

Olweus is not free. It involves hiring a trained coach. A school with 300 students typically pays $7 to $8000 over 3 years. After the initial investment it costs around $1000 per annum to keep it running.

In Sweden schools get subsidies from the national government  or municipality to run these programmes. Another large and expanding Swedish anti-bullying organisation called FRIENDS receives sponsorship from insurance companies.

In the US the cost often falls to the school itself. Except in Pennsylvania where schools receive financial aid through state health insurance. Not surprisingly, explains  Marlene Snyder, Pennsylvania is Olweus’s number one customer.


The program focuses on awareness and is implemented at the school, classroom and individual level. At the school level, the Olweus program seeks to form a “Bully Prevention Coordinating Committee.” The committee distributes an anonymous student questionnaire to assess the nature of the bullying . The committee then develops a system of supervision, creates a school-wide agreement against bullying, holds staff discussion groups and involves parents, while also training faculty and staff members to spot signs of trouble before they get out of hand. The rules are reinforced in the classroom where regular meetings are held with students to increase understanding, empathy and awareness of bullying.
Individually, the Olweus program seeks to intervene with the “bully” and the “bullied” by talking it out with parents, students and staff.

Are you or have you been in a school using Olweus? What is your experience of this or other bullying prevention methods?

Discuss this


Dan Olweus talks like  a clinician. What he  cares about is how to measure and quantify bullying. It’s as if he’s taken a philosophical position:  if you want to change the world you have to measure it first.

He throws out facts like hand grenades:

  • “Bullies are typically rule-breaking students. They are involved in vandalism, early sex, drinking alcohol. By the time they are 24 years old 60% will have committed a crime”.
  • “Victims are prone to depression.”
  • “Every bully and victim will cost the economy $2 million in extra health, justice and social care costs”.


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Back in 1969 Dan Olweus  was one of the first social science researchers to try to measure and predict aggressive behavior.  “I made a study of 800 boys in Stockholm – out of this study came the basic anatomy of bullying,” Olweus explains. His work was later published in the US in 1978 under the title  Aggression in Schools, Bullies and Whipping Boys.

But it was the suicide of three children age 10 to 14 in 1982 that sealed his fate. Following a public outcry Olweus was given a grant to study  2,500 boys in 42 schools in Bergen for over two years. Based on these findings he devised the Olweus Programme.

Political leadership and vision also played its part. Norway’s then Prime Minister Kjelle Magne Bondevik was committed to fighting bullying and in 2001 the Olweus programme was rolled out across Norway and later Sweden. By the mid 90s Olweus’s arguments had led to legislation against bullying in the Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments.


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Following the tragic school shooting in Columbine  in 1999 there was a keen interest in America in his research:
“A lot of people in the US were working on peer relationships, classifying students as ‘popular’,  ‘rejected’, ‘neglected’  and so on. But they ignored bullying. This had to be addressed” says Olweus.

It was his zeal for empirical research that made the US Justice Dept chose Olweus as a favoured scheme in 1999.
Success was based on a strict enforcement regime:  “There should be clear rules against anti-social behavior. If you break the rules there should be consequences” he says.


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SO what, in his view, accounts for the difference in the scale of bullying between Scandinavia and the USA? “It’s just a matter of time for the USA,” he says. “The USA is in a similar place to where Sweden found itself some years ago”.

Olweus is cautiously optimistic about the future. He says things can only get better given that today we know so much more about bullying and its long term consequences: “Schools must take this seriously. Now we have programs that we know work well – there is no excuse to say that we don’t know what to do”.

In August 2011 Dan Olweus was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Association in Washington DC for his ‘life long commitment to understand bullying among children and to create safe and humane school settings’.