Bullying: Why districts and parents fail: PART 2 – definition of bullying

Part 1 of this series pointed out that there are no federal laws on bullying.

On to the definitions of bullying, there are many but only one counts.

“In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • …” ~StopBullying.gov 1

Note that this comes from the Federal Government’s site, this is NOT law, it is more a suggestion or suggested policy.

I have minimal respect for the OLWEUS Bullying Prevention Program used by some districts, and here is one reason why. Let’s look at part of their definition of bullying:

“Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” ~OLWEUS 2

The concept of “imbalance of power” is a misnomer and often moot.

“Is there a power imbalance? Remember that a power imbalance is not limited to physical strength. It is sometimes not easily recognized. If the targeted child feels like there is a power imbalance, there probably is.” ~StopBullying.gov 3

“What constitutes a power imbalance?

  • A power imbalance may be characterized by:
    • Physical characteristics
      • Age, size, strength
  • Popularity or association with popular peers
  • Background/demographic characteristics
    • Member of majority/minority group, socio-economic status
  • Abilities and skills
    • Academic, physical, artistic
  • Access to money, resources, information
  • Being outnumbered
  • Presence of weapons” ~StopBullying.gov 4

So we have this concept of “power imbalance” that often depends on what is perceived by the target of the bullying.

I have led you down a bad path here …

I was recently sitting in a meeting, advocating for a family whose daughter was bullied and the school was not doing anything about it. At the beginning of the meeting the Assistant Principal, fully trained in the Olweus program, said (and it is a quote, I took careful notes):

“There is no bullying involved here since there is no imbalance of power between 6th graders.”

On the face of it, that statement is a fallacy. There are many imbalances of power between students of any grade, especially as perceived by individual students. Second, state law does NOT have “power imbalance” as part of the bullying definition.

The definition of bullying in the law (in this particular state):

““Bullying”, the repeated use by one or more students or by a member of a school staff including, but not limited to, an educator, administrator, school nurse, cafeteria worker, custodian, bus driver, athletic coach, advisor to an extracurricular activity or paraprofessional of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (i) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property; (ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school. For the purposes of this section, bullying shall include cyber-bullying.” ~Mass. General Laws 5

The Assistant Principal, the “point man” on bullying for the school, did not know the legal definition of bullying. Although moot, the district policy also has no concept of “imbalance of power.

““Bullying” means the repeated use by one or more students or staff of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at a target that:

  • causes physical or emotional harm to the target or damage to the target’s property;
  • places the target in reasonable fear of harm to him/herself, or of damage to his/her property;
  • creates a hostile environment at school for the target;
  • infringes on the rights of the target at school; or
  • materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.” ~Brookline Public Schools 6

Moot because the school district cannot have a more restrictive definition of bullying than the law.

Let’s look at other parts of the definition. NOTE: Find the definition used in your state laws, if there are no laws, check the school district’s policy. The definition used above is in the Massachusetts General Law but is similar to many others. (Find your state law here.)

“Repeated”

  • If it happens just once, it is NOT bullying. Twice, maybe. More than that, yes, it is bullying.

“written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture …”

  • If it is a note, an email, a letter, written on a locker, a desk, in writing of any form
  • If it is said, screamed, whispered, sang, verbally taunted …
  • If it is texted, iMessaged, Tweeted, im’d, commented on a blog, posted on Facebook, …
  • If there is a punch, kick, push, unwanted touching, inappropriate touching, …
  • If it is a gesture such as showing the middle finger, or other offensive actions …

“Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:

  • Teasing
  • Name-calling
  • Inappropriate sexual comments
  • Taunting
  • Threatening to cause harm

Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:

  • Leaving someone out on purpose
  • Telling other children not to be friends with someone
  • Spreading rumors about someone
  • Embarrassing someone in public

Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:

  • Hitting/kicking/pinching
  • Spitting
  • Tripping/pushing
  • Taking or breaking someone’s things
  • Making mean or rude hand gestures” 7

Causes one or more of the following …

(a) causes physical or emotional harm to the target or damage to the target’s property;

  • If it causes physical pain, bruises, tripping, falling, …
  • If it causes torn clothing, missing items, broken items, …
  • If it causes anxiety, depression, confusion, lack of focus ..

(b) places the target in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself or damage to his or her property;

  • If it causes fear of physical pain, bruises, tripping, falling, …
  • If it causes fear of torn clothing, missing items, broken items, …

(c) creates a hostile environment at school for the target;

  • “Hostile environment”, a situation in which bullying causes the school environment to be permeated with intimidation, ridicule or insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the student’s education. 8

(d) infringes on the rights of the target at school;

  • Civil Rights, human rights, right to an education … (more in a later post)

(e) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.

  • If it causes classes, lunch room, recess, etc. to operate differently

Bullying shall include cyberbullying.

  • Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Electronic technology includes devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers, and tablets as well as communication tools including social media sites, text messages, chat, and websites.
  • Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.

Once you know the definition you are in a position of power. That power NEEDS to be with the school district AND with the parent. Too many schools do not know the definitions, most parents don’t.

It is typical to think of bullying as “I know it when I see it” but that is not true.

Part 3 of this series will discuss the problems with how bullying is, or is not, reported and how to fix that.


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