Bullying Label Understates Crimes, Suicides, & Deeper Issues

Posted by on September 30, 2010

A 13-year-old is assaulted and his arms are broken because he wants to be a cheerleader.  Numerous teens commit suicide. 

What are these incidents called?  Today, the media, special interest advocates, and others call them “bullying.”  A few years ago, when kids were assaulted and had their arms broken, it was called “assault.”  And when kids completed suicide, it was called “suicide.”  And the issues were tackled accordingly.

What is “Bullying”?

Ask 50 people to define “bullying” and you’ll get 50 different answers.  In fact, this is what I have been doing a lot lately: Asking people to give their definition of bullying.  And some of the brightest, most dedicated educators, counselors, psychologists, and safety officers all come up with a wide array of answers.

In state and federal legislators, our elected leaders cannot (or choose not to) define bullying behaviors in most proposed anti-bullying legislation.  Instead, they propose laws focusing on the characteristics of the victims, which is essence amounts to civil rights/discrimination laws disguised as “anti-bullying” laws.

In a school setting, “bullying” has been used to describe assaults, threats, harassment, menacing, extortion, sexual assault, sexual harassment, discrimination, fighting, intimidation, suicide, and the list goes on. 

Also in a school setting, the school policies, student conduct codes, and school climate strategies typically already exist to deal with these behaviors.  Criminal laws exist to deal with those incidents which are crimes, such as the 13-year-old whose arms were broken or for charging individuals in the Phoebe Prince case in Massachusetts.  And federal civil rights law exists for dealing with discrimination. 

The reality is that we do not need new laws and new policies.  We do not need to create a new name or spend years creating a new commonly agreed-upon definition for a word (“bullying”) which is now being defined dozens of different ways.  We already have the tools to address the behaviors people are labeling as bullying.  The issue is do we have the leadership, courage, and consistency to use the tools we already have available?

Liberal Use of “Bullying” Risks Devaluing Serious and Complex Issues

Today, the word “bullying” is being used so liberally and pervasively that it can apply, and is being applied, to anything and everything.  Doing so oversimplifies serious issues like violent crimes and complex issues like teen suicides. 

It also has created a “we must do something about it” mentality with people (including many opportunists) clamoring for new laws, pimping new programs, and lobbying for tons of taxpayer dollars to address something which you would think just happened for the first time yesterday.

Why do we need to define a term to use for behaviors for which definitions, policies, student conduct codes, climate strategies, criminal law, and civil rights law already exist?

Media and Special Interests Fuel “Bullying” Fad

There is a huge media craze about bullying now, fueled by special interest groups advocating behind-the-scenes and legislators pushing their agendas under the guise of bullying.  As they say in the media, the story has “gotten legs.”  But the questions are, “How long will it last?,” and, “What will the next fad be in school safety?”

No, calling bullying a “fad” is not detracting from the seriousness of incidents where kids are attacked or commit suicide.  What actually detracts from the seriousness of these incidents is overgeneralizing and over-labeling them as “bullying.”  Crimes are crimes, suicides are suicides — and both are extremely serious and complex situations, which are defined by use of those specific terms (“crimes” and “suicides”).

Bullying can be, and is, used to mean just about anything today. Eventually it is going to lose its value, its power, and its buzz.  But until then, the hype and craze over  “bullying” appears to risk detracting from our focus and action on some very serious and complex issues — in these cases, criminal assault and teen suicide/mental health issues.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

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