Chief Issue for Anti-Bullying Advocates is the Word Itself

Anti-bullying advocates would get a lot further in their efforts if they did away with words like “bullying,” researchers explained to USA Today‘s Greg Toppo. The definition of bullying has now grown to include too broad a scope of behavior – anything from an eye roll to not wanting to be friends all the way up to sexual and physical assault. Such a range of meaning makes it harder to deliver lessons on bullying to students that they will absorb and take to heart instead of ignore.

Either what schools consider bullying needs to be substantially upgraded, or the worst of the worst behavior needs to be given a new name. But exactly what does it mean to be a bully? For one thing, most anti-bullying policies require the act itself to be repeated multiple times to qualify as bullying. As Dorothy Espelage, the head researcher in a project to release a new primer on bullying, said, there have been cases where students committed suicide as a result of being bullied, but the act had not been repetitive and thus teachers were powerless to label it bullying in time to avert disaster.

Espelage and her colleagues are hoping to abandon the term “bullying,” instead calling for schools to use the term “victimization.” But such a push is likely to be an extremely difficult one, in part because bullying campaigns have such a force of public awareness behind them. While this is a good development on the surface, it may actually be starting to backfire. According to National School Safety and Security Services, anti-bullying laws are moving into politically correct, “feel-good” territory at the hands of politicians who may be more interested in furthering their own careers than actually protecting kids. Many of them have a “bigger is better” mentality when it comes to crafting anti-bullying laws.

The fact that so many now define bullying to include so many different verbal and physical actions – most of them relatively innocuous – creates problems for school systems that attempt to adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. For example, students and parents in New Jersey are fighting back against a new anti bullying law they see as too restrictive and overreaching. At least 16 students have already appealed their accusations of bullying under the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, while others have challenged the anti bullying policy to their local school boards.

At the moment 16 does not seem like a very high number, especially when compared to the more than 12,000 kids who are cited for bullying each year. But there’s every indication that the numbers will grow and the legal system might soon find itself overwhelmed.

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