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During more than 20 years as a school administrator, I received numerous reports of bullying incidents from children, parents and teachers. Now that I'm the director of Not In Our School and bullying has become a topic of national discussion, I still regularly get calls from students and parents who share stories of tragic and worrisome incidents.

The first step in addressing any problem is to identify it, yet in the case of bullying, there is no accepted consensus on even the definition. At least ten definitions are included in various state legislatures, according to the New York Times. A new research report by the American Educational Research Association states, "Bullying is part of the larger phenomenon of violence in schools and communities. Educators and scholars should not limit themselves to the traditional definition. Further, the examination of victimization should involve interactions among all community members, including youth, teachers, school staff, parents and so forth."

No Time to Wait for a Definition

The challenge of defining bullying is real for researchers and lawmakers who need the specificity in order to measure and determine the consequences of bullying. However, while that larger discussion is taking place, people in the trenches continue to face the many manifestations of bullying, social cruelty and victimization, whether it appears in schools, colleges, workplaces or the community.

Many schools use this operational definition from Dr. Dan Olweus, a researcher who has been working on the phenomenon of bullying for 40 years:

Bullying is an act of verbal or physical aggression with an imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, again and again.

Not In Our School takes a position that schools and communities need to come together and address bullying and intolerance. Entire schools and communities need to understand and identify these behaviors and take effective action to prevent and respond to them.

Here are some examples of what they can look like:

Eating Alone in the Cafeteria

Relational bullying is manifested through exclusion, spreading of rumors and social isolation. It often occurs among students who are trying to raise their social status by rejecting someone from their group. This form of bullying can be subtler and much harder to address both from a response and research perspective. Yet it can be just as devastating, and often goes unaddressed over years, resulting in damage across a lifetime.

That's So Gay / That's So Jewish / That's So [Different from Me]

Along with bullying, intolerance is often at the heart of victimization. Intolerance can be revealed through unkind remarks with stereotypical comments regarding a person's identity, such as their race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, religion or physical ability. These intolerant attitudes can be developed and/or supported via the attitudes, actions and behaviors -- conscious or not -- of peers, family, teachers, coaches or other individuals in a child's life, and also through the media, music and the Internet. Students may express intolerance toward others overtly in a classroom or public setting, but this can also occur in venues where adults are not even aware that it's taking place.

Far too often, intolerance is embedded in institutional practices. Some examples of systemic intolerance and institutionalized racism include the disproportionate number of African American or Latino students who are suspended and expelled, or when the academic proficiency standards for certain ethnic groups are lower than others, as is true in Florida and Virginia. That tacit acceptance of racially biased systemic initiatives creates a climate for all types of interpersonal intolerance to flourish.

Prevention is a Process

The all-too-common practice of holding a moving schoolwide assembly or community event about the devastating impact of bullying is not enough to prevent bullying, nor will things change by simply explaining or posting the rules, laws and policies. Change comes through an ongoing focus on creating a welcoming environment where all voices are heard in regular dialogue about these issues. Here are a few key ideas for reducing bullying and creating that positive climate in schools, workplaces and all social venues:

  1. Involve the whole community, whether it is a school, church, neighborhood or town, in creating a shared vision for a positive climate with clear expectations for behavior.
  2. Use surveys to regularly assess the "climate" or sense of belonging and the way people feel on campus or in the workplace, and monitor the progress over time.
  3. For youth, teach positive social skills together with bullying prevention and intervention strategies as part of the curriculum at all grade levels, and reteach as needed when intervening in small and large incidents.
  4. Teach all members of a community to be "upstanders," those who speak up and stand up for themselves and others.
  5. Engage in regular dialogue about issues of bullying and intolerance, as well as making opportunities to bridge differences, create empathy, and learn about the many backgrounds and cultures.

Address All Forms of Victimization

Taking action means both preventing and responding to victimization incidents, whether they stem from acts of bullying, intolerance, or any form of social cruelty. An effective action plan includes the whole community working in a sustained manner to change the climate into one that is caring and empathetic.

Create an anti-bullying campaign on your campus with the Not In Our Town Quick Start Guide.

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Comments (19) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager


Recently we had a student make a comment here that indicated that he was considering suicide due to bullying. We take this very seriously at Edutopia. We have reached out to the student directly, and per our guidelines, we've removed the comment to protect his privacy and ensure that no harm comes to him.

This is a great reminder to all of us on the effects of bullying. Thanks in advance for everyone's cooperation and understanding.

J-, if you're reading this, check your email.

Debs I's picture

Hi Becky,

Few months ago, we had another situation where a teenager girl was victimized by her classmates. The mother approached the principal of the school and explained the entire situation. His response to this matter was "They are just kids playing with each other".... I really wish this principal took this situation seriously and professionally by utilizing the steps you have described above.

AnnO's picture
Parent of 2 students and an Elementary ParaProfessional

Bullying has been around for a long time. At one time we may have thought of it as only teasing, but somehow over the decades, bullying has evolved into an epidemic that is plaguing many school-aged youth. The focus often is specifically on the victim with little regard given to the one that is bullying. Both, however, suffer severe consequences that not only affect them today but their future success and choices as well. Research has shown that only passing of laws that try to make schools safe from bullying has an outcome with little to no change on the problem. It takes schools, parents and communities as a whole to work together and give the children encouragement and confidence to believe in themselves. It also takes this same group working together to enforce the necessary discipline needed so the student is held accountable for the choices and actions they made. This discipline does not need to be punishment based but instead can be in the form of learning positive ways to react to bullying as well as then following through and showing what it takes to be a supportive bystander when the situation rises again. Reactions of by-standers, whether they are fellow students, teachers, administrators or community leaders, can have the largest impact on the success, and or failure, of bullying's bite. The community combining their efforts is going to be the only way to negate the effects of bullying on the nation's students.

Marie-Evelyne's picture

It is the first time for me to admit it, but I was a victim of bullying when I was 5.
I remember my first days at elementary school, and they were not happy days. Without my cousin's help, I would have given up. My schoolmates were taking my food and laughing at me for no reason. I was very smart, and sitting on the table in front of the black board (yes, back home in Africa, we have black boards). Answering correctly to questions was making them feel uncomfortable, and they couldn't help but mistreat me.
You talked about standing up for ourselves, this is absolutely true. With my cousin's help, I had the courage to talk about it to my professor, and nothing happened to me anymore until I left that school where I just stayed for a year. Until today, I don't know what the professor told them, but they stopped threatening me and I was the happiest girl of the world.
This post just made me realize that I was a victim. If the world was defined, I would have told my parents early and stopped living with anxiety as soon as I would reach school.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I just want to thank everyone who has shared their personal stories. They help illuminate just how hurtful bullying can be and the importance of efforts to stop it.

Michelle Moreno's picture
Michelle Moreno
Human Resources

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Ms. Becki Cohn-Vargas, I really enjoyed reading your blog, "Bullying: In the Trenches, We Can't Wait for a Definition."
I, too, have heard personal, first-hand accounts of the severity bullying affects those targeted by the exploitation. Growing up, I remember being teased and pestered, but I really cannot relate to some of the experiences kids have to deal with growing up these days. It breaks my heart to hear of teens taking their lives because the bullying was so extreme and/or consistent. Just as you pointed out, it is important to realize bullying does not just take place in schools, but also within communities. That is why it is so important to bring awareness to and involve the communities which we live in and share commonalities.
Another important point you bring up is that bullying based on intolerance is often rooted in institutional practices of society. This makes bullying even more difficult to stop, because for some it becomes acceptable in their way of life. Again, we need to involve communities, families, and organized groups to address the epidemic.
This leads to your final point that prevention is a process. I wish you went into more detail in Point #1. The "how" of involving the whole community seems to be where people stop advocating against bullying as if they have hit a wall. It almost becomes difficult to put thought into words and then into action. We need more ideas and action to include the whole community in the anti-bullying campaign. Perhaps you address this in another blog, but with every respect your ideas surrounding the need for immediate, inclusive action against bullying are great!


Jamie love's picture


As I am reading. It is sad how people still bully others. I truly think school needs a lot of changes when it comes to policies. School needs to be more accepted of diversity, the more diversity, the more kids will understand different culture, then maybe there will be no bullying because people come from a very different background, different cultures, different traditional and many more.

We need to provide more workshops in elementary school, especially becacuse the "young" kids needs to be aware how it can influence a person's mental, physical and emotional by with one small gesture. A small gesture makes a huge difference! This bullying needs to stop!

The more we spread words, the more people understand a little bit better but we do have a long way to go to stop this.

Becki Cohn-Vargas's picture
Becki Cohn-Vargas
Director, Not In Our School at Not In Our Town

I totally agree. I have been pushing for more elementary resources for Not In Our School. We just released a new film and lesson guide for younger students. It is called "Leaving a Positive Footprint. Here is the link, It has kids talking about how to be an upstander.

More to come. Please share any other useful materials for elementary school. I also like the Cartoon Network's materials for elementary students- several useful films are found on their website- their campaign is called "Stop Bullying, Speak Up."

Becki Cohn-Vargas's picture
Becki Cohn-Vargas
Director, Not In Our School at Not In Our Town

Hi Michelle,
Thanks for your comments. Our whole organization, Not In Our Town is about involved the community in taking a stand against bullying and intolerance. It is a challenge to involve the community, but we believe that involving Schools, Civic Leaders, Faith Groups, Law Enforcement, Media, Arts, and others will make a big difference. Check out our site and you will also see many more examples.

We have many films and blogs on the topic. Here are a couple of examples:

Lancaster A City Unites to End School Bullying

White Out to Erase School Bullying (These students mounted a community-wide campaign and now are working to involve all of New Jersey

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