The focus on student-to-student bullying has increased dramatically in the past year, due to an increase in the number of severe bullying incidents that have made national headlines. Many of these incidents ended in student suicides.
It is tragic that committing suicide has become a common solution to peer bullying in and out of school. In years past, young people would rarely have thought of suicide as a serious option. Yet today, many of our youth would rather die than go to school and face their bullies yet again.
We must pay attention to this national phenomenon and commit to end student bullying when we see it.
But to stop it, we need to know what to look for. What do we mean by bullying and how does it differ from normal conflict or teasing?
Bullying has many different definitions. In fact, there is a wide variety of definitions among the 47 state laws addressing the behavior. But most practitioners and researchers generally use the following three criteria:
Bullying can be direct such as hitting, kicking, stealing or damaging a student’s property, as well as calling someone derogatory names, making sexually explicit gestures, and humiliating someone in public.
Bullying can also be indirect, such as excluding students from a social group, or spreading rumors about sexual behaviors or perceived sexual orientation. These covert forms of bullying tend to be more difficult to detect.
Bullies often target other students perceived as weak, such as special education students; or a loner, such as a new student; or students who are different racially or linguistically, especially immigrants, e.g., English Language Learners or Muslims; and students for their perceived sexual orientation.
Naturally, every instance of childhood teasing or pranking isn’t bullying. The three most important distinctions between bullying and normal childhood conflict are:
The repeated nature of bullying is part of the widely accepted definition used by researchers and practitioners. The student target is bullied day after day. However, adults should intervene even if it is the first time they witness the behavior, not wait to see if it is repeated daily.
The bully succeeds because their target is smaller, younger, of lower social status, or less socially able to cope or defend himself/herself.
3. Intent to harm
The student target is afraid and upset. The bully sees his/her behavior as no big deal or as deserved. The bully enjoys making the target upset.
Too often, bullying behaviors are overlooked and mistaken for normal childhood conflict. People tend to think that bullying is a natural part of growing up and young people will get over it. But that’s not always the case.
When the National Education Association’s national Bullying & Sexual Harassment Prevention & Intervention Program members meet with educators during training sessions, many participants readily recall being bullied, and even remember the name of the student who bullied them so many years ago. Even if they weren’t bullied but witnessed it and did nothing, training participants say they still feel guilty that they didn’t help that fellow student. If they were a bully and are courageous enough to admit it in a group setting, they too admit to feelings of guilt each time they see that person or their target’s parents, if they still live in the same community. The ramifications of bullying last long past childhood.
In addition to offering training on bullying prevention to its members, NEA initiated the national “Bully Free: It Starts with Me” campaign. Based on research that indicates that one caring adult can make all the difference to a bullied child, the NEA Bully Free campaign asks adults to take a pledge to be a caring adult in their school or community. In return, pledge takers receive a poster, a window cling and a button.
There may soon be a national definition of bullying that will inform our collective work and efforts. Because of the varying definitions found within states’ legislation and in bullying prevention programs, the U. S. Department of Education has convened a panel of practitioners, researchers and other experts to arrive at a national definition of bullying. They anticipate a report in Spring 2012.
Joann Sebastian Morris is a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.