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Professional Opinion

What is bullying?

Why achieving a clarity of definition is so important for principals
Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of several books on bullying.
Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of several books on bullying.

When we talk about bullying, what do we mean? Unfortunately, the answer is far from clear.

Educators are taught one definition, while most state statutes have yet another definition. Worse, surveys are based on a variety of definitions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Education, and Health Resources and Services Administration partnered with bullying experts to develop a uniform definition of bullying. In January 2014, the new definition was:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social or educational harm.”

Another perspective

The second definition of bullying is essentially “harmful acts.” The National Crime Victimization Survey uses this approach.

The question on bullying in the 2011 survey asked whether in the last year students had been:

  • Made fun of, called names or insulted
  • Threatened with harm
  • Subject of rumors
  • Pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on
  • Prodded to do things they did not want to do
  • Excluded from activities on purpose
  • The victim of property destruction.

The survey also asks about frequency, but does not ask about severity of the resulting impact.

The reported results of this survey are that 28 percent of U.S. students report they were bullied. But of those, 64 percent said this happened only once or twice in the school year. That’s not bullying. That is life. On the other hand, if it happens with more frequency, then it is most likely bullying.

State statutes

Lastly, there is the state statutory definition of bullying—or to be more precise, the 49 different state statutory definitions. Some of these contain terms that are simply not objective, such as “tease,” “annoy,” and the like. But many of these statutes do contain language that largely comes from a leading decision that interpreted the constitutionality of a school district’s bullying policy (Saxe v. State College, 2001).

By these legal standards, a sound definition of bullying is this:

“Pervasive or persistent hurtful acts directed at another student that have taken place at school, while traveling to or from school, during school activities, or while off-campus, that have caused, or can reasonably be forecast to cause, distress resulting in a significant interference with the ability of the student to receive an education or participate in school activities.”

Discriminatory harassment would be bullying, as defined, that is based on actual or perceived membership in a class that receives protection under state or federal civil rights laws.

Now let’s translate this objective definition into a series of questions.

  • Has the student been the target of hurtful acts by another student or students?
  • Have the hurtful acts been pervasive (widely spread), or persistent (continuing)?
  • As a result of these hurtful acts, is the targeted student emotionally distressed? Is this distress reasonable under the circumstances?
  • Has there been a significant interference in the ability of the targeted student to receive an education or participate in school activities? Or given the severity, pervasiveness or persistence of the situation, is such significant interference reasonably foreseeable? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” then this is bullying.
  • Is the targeted student a member of, or perceived to be a member of, a protected class as defined by federal or state civil rights laws?
  • Are the hurtful acts related to targeted student’s membership, or perceived membership, in this protected class?

If the answers to those questions are “yes,” then this is discriminatory harassment. The only objective and viable way to define, measure and assess bullying and discriminatory harassment is an approach that is grounded in the legal standards.

Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age and author of several books on bullying.