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How to Conduct a Thorough Bullying Investigation: Protecting Students and Your School

Bullying is a serious issue that can have devastating consequences for students and our communities. School district administrators must comply with state laws and their own local policies to take steps to prevent harmful behaviors and respond appropriately when they do occur. To be in compliance, a school district administrator is responsible for creating a safe learning environment and addressing bullying promptly and effectively. This blog will guide school administrators through the crucial steps of conducting a thorough bullying investigation.

Understanding Bullying

Before diving into investigations, let's first establish a clear understanding of bullying. It's not just teasing or occasional conflicts. Bullying is defined as repeated, unwanted behavior that causes harm. This harm can be physical, emotional, social, or psychological. Sometimes a bully doesn’t look like a bully – so it's important to analyze what they act like and the impact on the victim. Key factors to consider include:

  • Repetitiveness: The same behavior happens multiple times, intentionally or unintentionally.

  • Unequal power dynamics: Bullies often have more power or influence than their victims.

  • Impact on the victim: The behavior causes distress, fear, or other negative emotions.

The McGrath 5-Point Criteria

An administrator’s day can be filled with student-to-student conflict in the classroom and playground – or “kids being kids”. How do you know if these behaviors may be bullying or harassment? To navigate the complexities of bullying, McGrath recommends applying the 5-point criterion:

  1. Not accidental and caused harm: The actions were deliberate and caused negative consequences.

  2. Unwelcomed: The recipient didn't welcome the behavior and found it offensive.

  3. Severe and/or pervasive: The actions happened repeatedly, significantly impacting the victim.

  4. Unreasonable interference with education: The bullying disrupts the victim's ability to learn and participate in school life. A "reasonable person" would also find the behavior harmful.

  5. Unreasonably disrupts the environment: The bullying disrupts other students' ability to learn – they fear they “may be next”.

If the behavior exhibited represents three or more of the above, the behavior may be bullying or harassment and require a school district administrator to conduct a prompt, thorough investigation and determine appropriate discipline or corrective action.

Conducting the Investigation

Now, let's look at the critical components of a thorough bullying investigation:

1. Notice

Review your school district policy to determine when notice should be provided to the accused student and the parents. Take steps to inform all parties verbally and in writing. 

2. Gather Information:

Gather enough information to paint a picture of what happened and fully understand “what else was going on”. Remember, your state law and local policy require a “thorough” investigation, so take care to plan a thorough investigation and document the steps that were taken.

  • Collect details: Interview the complainant, respondent, and witnesses separately. Record their statements accurately and objectively. Always interview more than just the complainant and respondent. 

  • Review evidence: Check any available physical evidence like texts, emails, or social media posts. Review attendance, school video, or other applicable documentation.

  • Consult school records: Look for prior incidents or disciplinary actions related to the individuals involved.

 3. Analyze the Information:

Prepare an investigation report summarizing the key facts, the impact on the complaint and the community, and the totality of the circumstances (atmosphere) surrounding the event.

  • Focus on facts: Avoid speculation or assumptions. Stick to documented evidence and testimonies. Remove adjectives and subjective language.

  • Consider context: Take into account the environment, history of interactions, and potential motivations. What else was going on? 

  • Identify power dynamics: Assess the power imbalance between the individuals involved.

 4. Make a Determination:

Identify applicable policies (standards) and make a determination regarding if those policies were violated. School districts typically apply a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning that you don’t need clear and convincing evidence (i.e. 85%), but only a feather more to take reasonable action (> than 50%).

  • Based on evidence: Use the gathered information and the McGrath 5-Point Criteria to reach a sound, reasonable conclusion. If you are unsure, consult with other administrators to verify that your analysis and corrective actions are reasonable.

  • Clear and concise: Clearly state whether bullying occurred, evidence to support why or why not, who was involved, and the extent of the harm.

  • Document everything: Maintain a detailed record of the investigation process and findings. Provide a summary of the outcome report to both parties.

  • Appeal: If outlined in your school district policy, provide the right to appeal to both parties.

 5. Take Action:

  • Address the harm: Implement consequences for the perpetrator and support for the victim. This may include disciplinary measures, counseling, or restorative justice practices. Take steps to document any actions, who is responsible for those actions, and time to follow-up.

  • Prevent future incidents: Review and update school policies and procedures to address similar situations.

  • Provide training: Train all staff and students on identifying and reporting bullying, as well as appropriate intervention strategies.


 By following these steps and continuously improving your bullying prevention and investigation systems, you can create a safer learning environment for all students and protect your school from potential liability.

 Additional Resources:

Let's work together to create schools where every student feels safe and supported.

For more resources and training consider McGrath Training Solutions. We offer intake and investigation trainings for administrators regarding sexual harassment, misconduct, bullying, and discrimination concerns and complaints.


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