UNDERCOVER TEAMS - A Restorative Response to School Bullying


“There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us”
Robert Louis Stevenson

Undercover Teams are a restorative adaptation of the influential and far-sighted work in the early 90’s of Barbara Maines and George Robinson of the UK. They labeled their support group approach to addressing school bullying as “No-Blame”. At the time and for years later, some people believed that this process was the single answer to school bullying that everyone had been looking for. This article will not suggest that this is the case - rather, in my mind Undercover Teams represent a unique tool that fits within the family of 'restorative responses' (see Fig 2). Undercover Teams are a 'targeted approach and as such belong in the middle tier of the hierarchy - repairing relationships.

Restorative or Not?
Viewed using a restorative perspective, Undercover Teams (UTs) may not be regarded by some practitioners as ‘fully restorative’ because the victims of bullying and the offending students are not brought face-to-face as part of the process however this fact alone should not undermine the worth of UTs. Rather, UTs can represent a niche process for supporting young people who may be fearful at the prospect of participating in a restorative conference situation. For students who have been bullied for much or all of their school lives, this can often be the case.

The UT process does not make students with bullying behaviour accountable in the same fashion as a restorative conference. In a conference situation, the offending student(s) will be named for their harmful behaviour, though never in manner that is degrading of the person. In an UT process, the harmful behaviours are named, not individuals. For students who are reckless and thoughtless in their behaviours, an approach such as UT may be all that is required for them to take a honest look at their relationships with others. Also, because the UT process involves an ongoing relationship with a trusted staff member, the bullying students receive positive role-modeling and 'coaching' over an extended period of time that pure restorative processes may not usually provide. In my years of running UTs, I have developed positive relationships with many students who first came to my attention as 'bullies' through an UT - and I would like to think that the relationship was as useful for them as it was for me.

Classroom Bullying - An Ideal Application of UTsWhy? - Bullying within classrooms probably constitutes the most frequent type of school bullying because students spend more time in classrooms than they do in the school grounds at lunchtime and so on. Classrooms are naturally supervised by teachers but this does not prevent some very significant bullying from happening An elbow in the ribs, a pen being taken, degrading notes being passed, vicious words being whispered - these behaviours can all be employed by students without much fear of detection by a teacher. Needless to say, the constant, ongoing nature of classroom bullying can in some ways create more suffering than les frequent but higher level violence happening outside the classroom.

UTs are ideal for addressing class bullying because the support team have a predictable and defined physical and social environment to plan to - the UT students can probably understand the dynamics of the victim's predicament and accordingly, also know the solutions.

Turning Misery into Adventure!
Bullying is an extremely serious problem that can absolutely destroy children's and teenager's feelings of self-worth - but the solutions to bullying do not always have to be so grave and somber. UTs provide an opportunity for camaraderie, connection and even laughter once the first responsibility of supporting the victim has been attended to. I believe I have been as surprised as much as the students at how much fun UTs can provide in the frantic and often stressful world of school life.

Use Common Sense (call it a disclaimer)

Undercover Teams are intentionally a low-intrusion, student-centered process. If I am confident that the victim can be sufficiently supported using an UT process, this can be a useful starting point. If the UT process appears to be problematic or if the bullying severity demands the accountability that a restorative conference situation provides, it is necessary to inform the team that more people need to be involved and that the issue needs to be discussed openly. In critical bullying situations where imminent harm to the victim is a possibility, staff-centered processes (probably involving parents) will inevitably have to be employed.

The Process (all names shown in the forms are entirely ficticious)
Although there is considerable scope for creative management of Undercover Teams, there are some important steps that are central to the unique style of Undercover Teams:

1. An interview is held between the bullying victim and the teacher/school counsellor who will be facilitating the Undercover Team (UT) approach with an emphasis at this stage about hearing about the background, history and effects of the bullying. In this early meeting, it is important that the victim understands that the UT process prioritises a win/win solution above punishing the offending students – a philosophical direction that most victims are most happy with.

Providing that the victim is prepared to proceed with UT, the facilitator assists the victim in selecting the No-Blame support group which will usually consist of 6-7 pupils. The group requires the membership of the two students exhibiting the most bullying behaviours, several non-bullied/non-bullying assertive students and if possible one or two openly supportive students – a gender mix is almost always useful.

Note: It is the author’s experience that it is very rarely that the ‘bullies’ the victim identifies are irrecoverable – it is usually the case that the ‘bullies’ are students who have roled themselves (or been roled) as being a ‘smart-mouth’ (or something similar), and found it difficult to shake the delinquent identity. For some students, this ‘bully’ tag has pursued them for years through school, and has often been worsened by stigmatising punitive school anti-bullying proces
ses that they have met.

2. Shortly afterwards, the facilitator calls up the chosen support group - we don't get second chances to make first impressions and accordingly it is vital for the staff member to make every effort to put on a cheerful, welcoming face. After exchanging greetings and taking a little time to make the students feel at home, the facilitator asks if a clause of confidentiality can be agreed upon in order for a difficult topic to be discussed.

Provided that this can be obtained, the facilitator then explains that a student from their class is really down and the same student has selected the group himself/herself as classmates "who others listen to". At no stage is mention about punishments or consequences even hinted at - it is extremely important for the staff member to adopt a 'forward thinking' stance rather than one that looks backwards into the past. To give the students a sense of efficacy, the facilitator acknowledges the school’s difficulty in solving the victim’s problem without the assistance of students from the victim’s environment.

The facilitator reads the victim’s statement of distress, with emphasis upon the change in the student’s feelings of self-worth since the bullying – if the facilitator has done an effective job in his/her earlier interview with the victim, this should be heart-breaking testimony. The names of perpetrators are intentionally omitted and even the meeting form itself (in case students should want to consult it) should have no reference to the different categories of students who comprise the group. Although several of the group members may appear uncomfortable at this stage (‘bullies’ especially), the facilitator maintains a positive outlook and invites the group to join with the staff member in implementing an ‘undercover’ process which can secretly rescue the victim from his/her plight without the scrutiny of interfering others.

Beyond the convenience for the UT in being able to operate without the scrutiny of jealous classmates, the strategy of privacy allows the bullying students to re-role themselves as ‘helpers’ without the fear of being ridiculed for being “soft” or “weak” by their close friends. Secondly, the undercover ‘theme’ creates an atmosphere of intrigue and mystique that encourages a strong group identity – this is an especially powerful motivator to the ‘bullies’ who in reality are often students who struggle to maintain positive peer relationships.

Note: I never use the term "bully" or "bullying" at all during any part of the UT process - both these terms are emotionally 'loaded' and tend to restrict students into confining ways of thinking.

As the account of the harmful behaviour is read out, the students whose behaviour is being described tend to be very quiet, but the 'assertive' students at this point can have a variety of responses - they are almost invariably as shocked as the 'bullies' but sometimes they express guilt that they had not intervened. The facilitator's job at this point is to release them from this binding emotion and invite them to channel their energy into a solution. The 'assertive students' can also round upon the 'bullies' at this stage of the process with statements such as, "That's you that ______ is talking about!!!" Ultimately, all the 6 or 7 students from the group will have to work together so the facilitator needs to gently but swiftly intervene at this point to remind students that the meeting is not a search for blame.

Sometimes, the victim's statement will open wounds for some of the group, often the 'bullies' have stories of victimisation - rather than rushing on and returning to the victim's situation, I find that there is enormous worth in hearing people's accounts and acknowledging how much hurt students have been through.

3. After some discussion and with a clear agreement of what needs the victim has, the newly formed UT often experiences little difficulty in quickly establishing simple, achievable tactics that can improve the social circumstances of the victim - occasionally however, the UT can become 'stuck' and producing meeting forms from previous groups can be a useful tool for moving forward. Although individual members may take responsibility for certain tasks, (for example, “I’m going to sit with Craig in Maths and help him”), these plans work most effectively if there is a sense of a group responsibility towards the victim. It is my experience that the simplest interventions are the most effective - such as students saying "Hi" to the victim and chatting with him/her.

Note: It is usually at this stage that a solid sense of group identity begins and the 6 or 7 students begin to talk earnestly about a name for the group and so on - this is a time for the facilitator to take a back seat and allow the group formation to proceed. Also, it is often the case that the ex-bullies adopt the physical protector role as their specific tasks within the UT - “If anyone touches Craig, I’m going to smash them.” The irony of this situation must be tactfully overlooked and some advice given by the facilitator on how to support the victim without such aggression.
It is useful for the facilitator to coach the whole group at this stage of the process with useful suggestions including progressively building support for the victim rather than a rapid, indiscreet implementation and making contingency plans to counter unwanted curiosity from classmates.

Overall, the role for the facilitator in this part of the UT process is to present a 'middle path' for the group by providing encouragement to an overwhelmed group and providing caution to a group that might be at risk of exceeding their abilities.

4. With an optimistic tone, the facilitator warmly farewells the UT who are released to the classroom (or other environment) to quietly and discreetly begin their ‘work’. If the facilitator has done their job well, the UT will swing into action the next opportunity that they have contact with the victim. It may be the case that the UT team asks a particular favour of the facilitator in order for the team to pursue its tasks - for example, the facilitator may be required to ask a teacher (or two) if a class seating plan may be adjusted in order for the UT to operate effectively. A couple of days after the UT has begun its work, the facilitator should 'check in' with victim to establish how he/she is feeling and to gauge their impressions of the UT's work.

Note: It can be the case that the victim is totally overjoyed by their new-found popularity and stand in danger of expecting too much from the UT team. At this point it is responsible for the UT facilitator to tactfully encourage the ex-victim to let the UT team do their job in peace, and invite him/her to explore friendships in a natural manner without targeting the 6 or 7 UT students. As such, the UT provides the environment for new social opportunities to arise for the ex-victim - but the UT is not necessarily the new social opportunity itself.

5. After a pre-arranged time period (often one week), the UT reconvenes with the facilitator to discuss the progress of their collective plan and share their perceptions of changes in the victim’s circumstances. The member’s opinions can be cross-referenced by the facilitator who will usually have met the victim for a second time (see above). This meeting is almost without exception a time of celebration and achievement, usually most so for the ex-bullies who have often discovered new competencies/identities within themselves and forged new skills of relating to others.

It is usually good practice for the facilitator to guide the UT through a review of each of the individual decisions that the group had for the victim. Some of these decisions will inevitably be more successful than others - there may be a requirement for some to be dropped and new ideas to be added to the overall plan.

Note: Although confessions of some kinds are sometimes expressed by the ‘bullies’ during the first UT meeting, it is often the case that the ex-bullies will talk openly about their earlier wrongs during this second UT meeting. It is also in this second meeting that open talk begins to occur between the entire group on how the class behaves, what dynamics (positive or negative) are operating in the class, and so on. The facilitator can learn much about the teaching and learning environment during these discussions.

6. The UT agrees upon any further meetings required for the victim’s benefit. There is often considerable enthusiasm for continuing the life of the group - members will often spontaneously nominate other students in their peer group or class who appear in social difficulty who they would like to also assist. This is not to be discouraged but it appears to be good practice for the UT facilitator to encourage the team to set up a solid basis of several weeks support for the initial victim before adding new students to their plan.

As a rough guide for myself, I attempt to progressively introduce longer intervals between each successive UT meeting. This serves the purpose of allowing me to keep an eye on the team's progress and yet give the team the encouragement to become self-managing. I do not usually need more than four or five UT meetings - and the last meeting can be concluded with perhaps a special small ceremony or speech. I conclude my facilitation of the UT by informing the team that they are "in charge" of the class situation - but also offer the UT an open invitation to return if they feel that there is a matter that is beyond their expertise.

Note: In the author’s experience, the facilitator often has more difficulty in gracefully and sensitively concluding a UT’s life than in maintaining the group’s enthusiasm to the end - Having said this, it is possible to successfully resurrect UTs after several year’s non-activity to attend to a particular relationship need.

How Much Should Staff Know about the Undercover Teams Operating in their Classes?
I feel reluctant to offer definitive advice on this matter because so much is dependent on the teachers and student/teacher relationships. As a general rule,I prefer to involve them as much as the circumstances allow. Involving staff provides a wider audience to the UT and this is especially important in the case of the 'bullies' who may have been viewed by staff in very confining and negative ways. Because teachers can understandably have very entrenched views about students with historic bullying behaviours, they may have to see progress before they believe it.

Teachers can sometimes feel guilt that they did not identify the bullying themselves - reactively, they may accordingly overlook the potential power of the UT process and attempt to 'crush' the bullying using punitive measures. This of course destroys the environment for the UT to operate effectively - and the UT can collapse without intervention by the facilitator. Generally, it is safer to invite teachers into the UT 'secret' once the team has begun to make progress and the teacher is confident that their intervention is unnecessary.

Acknowledging the Team
I have mixed feelings about appearing to provide 'rewards' for what is essentially a human responsibility - to relieve suffering from people where it has been identified. I believe that the UT process is an opportunity whereby students can be gently educated in the rights and obligations of 'citizenship' by the facilitator - and the students experiencing it for themselves.

Accordingly, some students often feel that the altruistic gains from their UT experience are the only rewards that they require, but if wider acknowledgment to members of the school community is likely to allow students to build stronger pro-social identities, there are many possibilities. Emails to teachers, describing the team’s labours are always popular but probably most highly prized are signed certificates sent home to parents, especially to the families of ‘reformed bullies’.

Multiple Undercover Teams?
I can only give my own perceptions on this issue but I advise only running one UT per class on the basis that any more than that creates unnecessary complications. The UT works at its enthusiastic best when it feels that it has a special place in the life of the class and if this sense of uniqueness is lost, their enthusiasm will dwindle. Experience shows that the UT will not only care for the selected victim but will tend to (intentionally or not) broaden their scope and assist others - it is from this generalised effect that staff and students will often comment that a class is operating harmoniously, unwitting to the presence of an UT.

For the meeting template, go to:

Further Reading:
Robinson, G. and Maines, B. (1997) Crying for help: The No-Blame approach to bullying. Bristol, Gt. Britain: Lucky Duck Publishing.
(this small text describes the original 'No Blame' process that UTs stemmed from)

Williams, M. (2007) The undercover approach to bullying. New Education Gazette, 6 August, Volume 86 Number 13
(this is an on-line article, derived from a print version - Mike has a good theoretical and practical grasp of the UT approach and you can contact him at WJM@edgewater.school.nz)

The Author:
Bill Hubbard worked as the Head of the Student Support Department at Rosehill College, Papakura, Auckland, New Zealand.

As at 2015 Bill works in the same school in a Deputy Principal position.

For further support and/or to request a free UT Meeting Form e-template, please email b.hubbard@rosehill-college.co.nz