Defining Bullying Behavior
What is bullying? At first glance, it might appear that this behavior is easy to define. A common image of bullying might be of a physically intimidating boy beating up a smaller classmate or of one child shoving another inside a hallway locker. While that is still considered bullying, it's important to know that bullying behaviors can be much more complex and varied than historical stereotypes.
For example, while some bullying is physical and easy to recognize, bullying can also occur quietly and covertly, through gossip or on a smart phone or the internet, causing emotional damage.
As a starting point, there are elements that are included in most definitions of bullying. Although definitions vary from source to source, most agree that an act is defined as bullying when:
- The behavior hurts, humiliates, or harms another person physically or emotionally.
- Those targeted by the behavior have difficulty stopping the action directed at them, and struggle to defend themselves.
- There is also a real or perceived “imbalance of power,” which is described as when the student with the bullying behavior has more “power,” either physically, socially, or emotionally, such as a higher social status, or is physically larger or emotionally intimidating.
- Repetitive behavior; however, bullying can occur in a single incident if that incident is either very severe or arises from a pattern of behavior.
Many definitions also include:
- The types of Bullying: The behavior can be overt and direct, with physical behaviors, such as fighting, hitting or name calling, or it can be covert, with emotional-social interactions, such as gossiping or leaving someone out on purpose. Bullying can also happen in-person, online or through smart phones and texts.
- Intent of the part of the student with bullying behavior: “It is intentional, meaning the act is done willfully, knowingly, and with deliberation to hurt or harm,” but there is some controversy with this statement as some assert that not all bullying behavior is done with intent or that the individual bullying realizes that their behavior is hurting another individual.
- Distinction about amount and duration: Many definitions indicate that the bullying is “repeated,” but the reality is that bullying can be circumstantial or chronic. It might be the result of a single situation, such as being the new student at school, or it might be behavior that has been directed at the individual for a long period of time.
- The implications for all students: It is also important to note that bullying is not just about the implications for those targeted by the behaviors, but that the behavior can impact all students in the school, including those who witness the behavior and those that engage in the behavior.
- Additional factors: these can include; the differentiation between bullying and harassment, enumeration of protected classes, statements around the use of technology, how the behavior impacts educational performance and the physical locations that would fall under the jurisdiction of school sanctions.
Students often describe bullying as when “someone makes you feel less about who you are as a person.”
Note: This is not a legal definition. Rather it is a way to help students understand what bullying is. For a legal definition, consult your state’s law on bullying. You can find your state’s law at StopBullying.gov.
Defining “Harassment” Including Harassment based on Disability
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated that bullying may also be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.
Harassing behaviors may include:
- Unwelcome conduct such as: Verbal abuse, such as name-calling, epithets, slurs
- Graphic or written statements
- Physical assault
- Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating
Students have protection under federal laws
In October 2014, as part of National Bullying Prevention Month, the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) today issued guidance to schools reminding them that bullying is wrong and must not be tolerated—including against America's 6.5 million students with disabilities.
The Department issued guidance in the form of a letter to educators detailing public schools' responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the bullying of students with disabilities. If a student with a disability is being bullied, federal law requires schools to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the issue and, as necessary, take steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.
The October 2014 guidance builds upon letters the Department has issued in recent years concerning schools' legal obligations to fix the problem, including:
- A 2013 dear colleague letter and enclosure by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) clarifying that when bullying of a student with a disability results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit under IDEA, the school must remedy the problem, regardless of whether the bullying was based on the student's disability.
- A 2010 dear colleague letter by the OCR, which elaborated on potential violations when bullying and harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.
- A 2000 dear colleague letter by the OCR and OSERS, which explained that bullying based on disability may violate civil rights laws enforced by OCR as well as interfere with a student's receipt of special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The latest letter makes clear that the protections for students with disabilities who are bullied on any basis extend to the roughly three quarters of a million students who are not eligible for IDEA services but are entitled to services under the broader Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law bars discrimination on the basis of disability in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
Help is available for those who are either targets of disability bullying or know of someone who might be, such as:
- A fact sheet for parents on schools' obligations under federal law to address bullying. The fact sheet is also available in Spanish.
- Asking to meet with the student's team that designs his or her individualized education program—the IEP or Section 504 teams.
- Asking to meet with the principal or school district's special education coordinators to have the school address bullying concerns.
- Seeking help from OCR. The office investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. To learn more about federal civil rights laws or how to file a complaint, contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339), or firstname.lastname@example.org. OCR's Web site is www.ed.gov/ocr. To fill out a complaint form online, go to http://www.ed.gov/ocr/complaintintro.html.
To view OCR's guidance detailing public schools' responsibilities regarding the bullying of students with disabilities in Spanish, click here.
State Laws and Model Policies
Within state laws, each state addresses bullying differently and the content varies considerably. For example, some states cover it in a single law, while others have multiple laws, or in addition to law they have policy.
The U.S. Department of Education:
- provides an interactive map which details each state’s bullying and harassment laws and policies created by state and local lawmakers to prevent bullying and create safer school climates. Visit the interactive map>>>
- identified 11 key components common among the laws and policies created by state and local lawmakers. Review the key components>>>
The Impact of Bullying
Bullying was once considered a simple, harmless rite of childhood experienced by many students. Today, research shows that bullying has significant short- and long-term effects that impact education, health and safety.
1. Education - Bullying can negatively impact a child’s access to education and lead to:
- School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
- Decrease in grades
- Inability to concentrate
- Loss of interest in academic achievement
- Increase in dropout rates
2. Health - Bullying can also lead to physical and mental health problems, including:
- Headaches and stomachaches
- Sleeping problems
- Low self-esteem
- Increased fear or anxiety
- Post traumatic stress
3. Safety – Bullying also impacts student sense of well-being, such as:
- Increased aggression
- Self-harm and suicidal ideation
- Feeling of alienation at school
- Fear of other students