George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Bullying: In the Trenches, We Can't Wait for a Definition

October 18, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

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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  • Community Partnerships
  • Diversity
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