As Schools Focus on Bullying, Clarity Remains Elusive

Bullying and cyberbullying have entered the conversation at nearly every school in the US — but what do the terms actually mean? Researchers are urging more precise use of the word "bullying" as many schools and communities this month launch fresh campaigns for National Bullying Prevention Month.

Some researchers said the word "bullying" has been misused and abused in the last few years. It "too casually uttered about every hurt, slight and fight, too frequently used in place of teasing or fighting, and too often brought up before there's proof it happened," writes Jamie Gumbrecht of CNN News.

"By calling everything bullying, we're actually failing to recognize the seriousness of the problem," said Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. "It's one of the unfortunate side effects of doing an awareness campaign … everyone wants to adopt it."

According to many educators and social scientists, actual bullying can be defined as "intentional, repetitive abuse by a powerful person toward a less powerful target." The term has rippled through news reports of tragic teen suicides in Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia and Britain.

It began a few years ago, as horrifying stories of bullying hit the media and serious awareness began to spread. Educators, lawmakers, parents and children all tried to make sense of it, even as it evolved with the latest social network. But along the way, people sometimes confused bullying with the unfortunate — but normal — moments of angry, thoughtless or hurtful behavior.

Every parent, teacher and child knows the word bullying, but not everyone defines it clearly. According to the Education Commission of the States, most states have bullying laws on the books, but it is handled differently around the country.

In New Hampshire's law, bullying can be an act that occurs only once, not necessarily multiple times in a pattern. Several states have added provisions to cover cyberbullying, bullying or harassment through technology, which further complicates a precise definition. Massachusetts and New Jersey also have laws that detail how educators should prevent, report and investigate bullying.

Say the word in almost any school these days, and it will get a quick reaction. In many cases, advocates said, that's helpful. But sometimes, when it's not really bullying, kids miss out on a chance to learn to cope with minor conflicts on their own.

"The label ‘bullying' is really incendiary," Elizabeth Englander said. "It ratchets everything up emotionally. It makes it hard to really address, rationally, what the best course of action is." The people hurt most by the overuse of "bullying," Englander said, are young people most desperate for a solution — those in the midst of very real, traumatic instances of bullying, students whose pain might be overlooked in a crush of reported cases.

Educators and teachers have found it difficult to untangle the threads of a possible bullying case. Becki Cohn-Vargas, an educator for more than two decades, said it is not easy and simple to identify a child as a bully or victim — a warning that reveals the complexity of the topic, and the lack of progress with simplifying it, even as schools add to their anti-bullying efforts.

People should be diligent about how they use the word bullying, Cohn-Vargas said, but that doesn't mean they should stop talking about it.

10 10, 2013
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