Bullying can be defined as long-standing physical or psychological violence carried out both repeatedly and over time, by either individuals or groups, that targets individuals who are unable to defend themselves. It is both conscious and deliberate; the bully intends to inflict harm on the victim. Bullying, then, is not merely a rite of passage; rather, it is a particularly cruel set of behaviors that can have long-term consequences for both the bully and the victim. This entry describes bullying and some remedies in the school setting.
What Constitutes Bullying?
There are three elements that mark all bullying. First is an imbalance of power. This imbalance can be owing to the bully’s physical strength or size, or it may be that the bully is perceived to be mentally or socially superior to the victim. In the case of group bullying, the number of people involved renders the victim powerless. Second, there is intent to harm. In other words, the bully is fully aware that his or her action will inflict physical and emotional pain, and he or she derives satisfaction from seeing the anguish imposed. Third, there exists a threat of further aggression, as all parties involved understand that the bullying can and most likely will occur again. In addition to these three elements, if bullying continues unimpeded, a sense of terror is inflicted. Here, the victim not only feels powerless to fight back but also believes that peers or adults are either unwilling or unable to stop the bullying.
Bullying can take the form of verbal, physical, or relational abuse. Verbal bullying is the most common form, mainly because it is less likely to be noticed by adults or mistaken as simple teasing. Unlike teasing, verbal bullying involves intent to harm through humiliating, cruel, bigoted, or demeaning comments. Verbal bulling is not limited to individuals. Groups can engage in bullying through the use of malicious gossip. Both girls and boys engage in verbal bullying.
Physical bullying is the form most commonly associated with the term bullying. However, while it is the most visible form, physical bullying accounts for only about one third of reported incidents. This form of bullying not only includes hitting, shoving, spitting, kicking, and other forms of physical contact; it also includes destroying of property or clothing. While girls do engage in physical bullying, the majority of incidents involve boys.
Relational bullying is the intentional ignoring, excluding, isolating, or shunning of a child from group activities. This is the most insidious form of bullying, as it is not as easily detected as physical or verbal forms. Additionally, victims of relational bullying tend to either hide the pain or disguise it through bravado. It appears that mostly females engage in this form of bullying.
In addition, bullying can take place online; this is known as cyberbullying and combines elements of all three of the other kinds of bullying. All forms of bullying can also be either racist or sexual in nature. Minority children and those who are recent immigrants are most commonly victims of racial bullying. Females, because their physical maturity is apparent earlier than males’, and, due to their sexuality, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual children are most commonly targets of sexual bullying.
Bullying is a complex phenomenon. As a behavior, bullying is not the act of an angry child. Rather, it is based on contempt toward individuals whom the bully perceives as weak, inferior, different, or worthless. Bullies often exhibit a sense of entitlement, an intolerance toward differences, and an authority to exclude those they perceive as undeserving. Children who are the target of bullying are often chosen simply because they are seen as different from the accepted norm.
In addition to bullies and their targets, bystanders are an important component in the behavior. This group includes active and passive supporters of the bully, disengaged spectators, those who are too afraid to defend the victim, and defenders.
School is the place where most bullying takes place; however, in many cases it occurs without adult intervention. The basis for this nonintervention can be teachers’ beliefs that bullying is a normal part of school, or the subtle and covert nature of bullying, which prevents it from being noticed by adults; or the fear of victims and bystanders, which prevents them from reporting incidents. Left unchecked, bullying can promote an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in schools and escalate to harassment and violence. Further, by not intervening in bullying, teachers and administrators imply a tacit acceptance. Finally, research demonstrates that school bullies are more likely to continue antisocial behavior as adults, and victims can be driven to commit acts of violence.
In reaction to the shootings at Columbine High School, states have instituted antibullying legislation. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of either tort- or speech-based legislation is unclear. Under the Supreme Court’s guidance in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), an argument can be made that bullying would have to be severe enough to deprive victims of educational access. Pursuant to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), substantial disruption of educational process would most likely have to involve physical disturbance. Either way, both tort- and speech-based legislation require events to escalate to a palpable level of disorder before they can be treated as bullying. Moreover, in each of these definitions, school officials need to be aware of bullying incidents, which is often not the case. Finally, these remedies focus only on bullies and their victims, typically disregarding the essential role of bystanders, effectively rendering such remedies incapable of lasting effects.
Research shows that the best means of reducing bullying is through comprehensive whole-school intervention programs that target bullies, victims, and bystanders. Additionally, programs require educators, parents, and students to work together to create climates in which all are valued members of school communities. In these school communities, it is a basic human right not to be subjected to oppression or humiliation. Programs do not require legislators and courts to choose between school safety and speech rights. Instead, they are designed to promote safe environments wherein all students can be free to learn.
See also Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser; Cyberbullying; Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education; Gangs; Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier; Hazing; Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District; Zero Tolerance
- Coloroso, B. (2006). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander. Toronto, ON, CA: Collins.
- Hart, K. (2005). Sticks and stones and shotguns at school: The ineffectiveness of Constitutional antibullying legislation as a response to school violence. Georgia Law Review, 39, 1109–1154.
- Olweus, D. (1995). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell.
- Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).
- Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), on remand, 206 F.3d 1377 (11th Cir. 2000).
- Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).
- Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).