What is Bullying?
Bullying is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying must be aggressive and include both: (1) a real or perceived imbalance of power, those who bully use their physical, mental, emotional, or other form of power over another to control or harm them (this power imbalance can shift over time); and (2) repetition, in which the aggressive behavior happens more than once or has the potential to repeat. According to the 2017 School Crime Supplement, nationwide, about 20% of students ages 12-18 experience bullying in the US.
The three main types of bullying are physical, verbal, and social bullying. The fourth type, cyberbullying, has been added in recent years as increased technology and social media have made the internet a place where bullying can thrive. Approximately 23% of children are victims of cyberbullying. It can be particularly difficult to tackle because cyberbullying can happen at any time of the day, it is often permanent and public, and it is hard for teachers and parents to notice. More information on these different categories of bullying and what kind of behavior falls into them can be seen below.
Bullying can have many negative effects, both in the short- and long-term, for all those involved, including the bullier, the bullied, and bystanders. Some of the common effects can be seen below.
Source: American SPCC
Bullying often has warning signs that parents, teachers, and other community members can look out for. These can include the following:
Refusal to talk about what is wrong
Unexplained bruises, cuts, or scratches
Missing or damaged belongings or clothes
Alone or excluded from friends groups
Appear insecure or frightened
Changing sleeping or eating patterns, including trouble getting out of bed
Not wanting to go to school
Unwillingness to discuss or secrecy about online communication
Bullying of LGBTQ+ Youth
Even though bullying can happen to any child in any location, some students have an increased risk of being bullied because they may be thought of as different from others in some way. This can include socially isolated students, students who cannot afford what others can, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBTQ+. A study from the Journal of School Health found that LGBTQ+ youth have higher rates of bullying than heterosexual youth across all racial and ethnic categories.
The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that students who identify as LGBTQ+ report higher rates of bullying on school property (33%) and higher rates of cyberbullying (27%) compared to heterosexual high school students (17% and 13%, respectively). Other studies have found even higher rates of bullying for LGBTQ+ students, with the 2017 National School Climate Survey reporting that 70% of LGBTQ+ students experienced verbal harassment and 29% experienced physical harassment at school. However, only 55% of LGBTQ+ students who were victims of bullying reported it to school staff, most often because they doubted effective intervention or feared repercussions from reporting. This lack of reporting of bullying allows harassment and violent crime against LGBTQ+ individuals to continue into adulthood and contributes to low rates of reporting of crimes against LGBTQ+ adults to police.
According to FBI data on hate crimes, crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity have risen since 2013, with them now representing approximately 20% of reported hate crimes. However, the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that actual rates of crimes against LGBTQ+ are much higher. They report a total of 204,600 hate crimes in 2017 rather than the FBI’s rate of 7,500. They also report that crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity actually make up about 25% of all hate crimes. According to The Center for Public Integrity, LGBTQ+ individuals rarely report hate crimes against them because of a lack of trust in law enforcement or a feeling that nothing will happen if they report. This is very similar to why LGBTQ+ youth do not report bullying. To make LGBTQ+ adults more likely to report hate crimes in adulthood, it is important to create a better environment in schools where they feel comfortable reporting bullying.
When Does Bullying Become a Crime?
Bullying can become a crime when the bully:
Physically assaults someone
Harasses someone especially if the harassment is based on gender or racism
Makes violent threats
Makes death threats
Makes obscene or harassing phone calls or texts
Commits hate crimes
Takes a photo of someone in a place where they expect privacy
Engages in sexual exploitation or extortion
Participates in hazing
There are no federal laws that explicitly apply to bullying. Therefore, it is important to be aware of state and local laws, policies, and regulations. These can be browsed by state here.
Why Does Bullying Often Go Unreported?
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, only 46% of those who are victims of bullying report it to a school official. Very few of these incidents are ever reported to police because they are not deemed to be crimes, the school feels that they can handle bullying on their own, or the laws surrounding bullying are unclear. There are several reasons why a victim of bullying may not report it:
The victim is ashamed or embarrassed because the bully has pointed out something they are insecure about or made them feel powerless
The victim is afraid that the bully will retaliate if they report
The victim feels pressure from peers to remain quiet to retain social standing
The victim is concerned that no one will believe them because they distrust the school administration or law enforcement
The victim is worried that they will be labeled a snitch and thus become a target for other bullies
The victim feels like they deserve it because of a lack of self-esteem
The victim fails to recognize that they are being bullied if it is subtle, such as spreading rumors, ostracizing others, or sabotaging relationships
The victim assumes that adults expect them to deal with it on their own
In cases of cyberbullying, the victim fears adults will restrict their digital access
To increase reporting of bullying, it is important for schools to establish an effective reporting mechanism for students. It should be easy for victims and witnesses to report and it should be possible for students to report anonymously, so that the intimidation they have received from bullies and others deterring them from reporting is partially alleviated. Community Oriented Policing Services state that local law enforcement officers can play a role in increasing reporting by partnering with schools to create staff training programs to prevent bullying and helping them improve their reporting services. Law enforcement can also help schools ensure that the campus is safe and supervised, especially in areas that are typical bullying hot spots, like cafeterias, buses, hallways, locker rooms, and school yards.
How Can We Stop Bullying?
Bullying is difficult for children to go through and can often leave them feeling alone. Adults in their community should therefore do what they can to help. StopBullying.gov provides some advice for what different key players can do to stop bullying.
Recognize the signs that indicate that your child may be engaging in bullying others or is a victim of bullying
Learn what bullying is, including how often it occurs, who is at risk of become a bully or a victim, and the effects of bullying
Advise your children on internet safety and tips for avoiding cyberbullying
Communicate openly and honestly with your child if you suspect that they are involved in bullying
Look for resources at your child’s school, through local law enforcement, or online if you have determined that your child is a bully or a victim
For School Officials:
Like parents, learn what bullying is, including how often it occurs, who is at risk of become a bully or a victim, and the effects of bullying
a. According to StopBullying.gov, children who are bullied often are perceived as
different from their peers in appearance or clothing; are perceived as weak or
unable to defend themselves; are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem;
have less friends than others; or do not get along with others
b. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, students most often
report being bullied due to their physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender,
disability, religion, or sexual orientation
Establish a safe school climate, and engage students and parents in creating this positive space
Understand your duties and responsibilities under state and federal anti-bullying and harassment laws
Respond effectively when you witness bullying
a. Stop the bullying immediately, stand between the victim and the bully, block eye
contact, do not send bystanders away, wait until later to sort out the facts to
avoid escalating tension, and talk to those involved seperately when they are
Assess the state of bullying at your school and search for resources to help reduce rates
For Community Members:
Learn what bullying is and understand laws surrounding it
Learn how to respond to bullying effectively and intervene if you witness it
Host anti-bullying events and help your community develop a strategy to combat bullying
For Law Enforcement Officers and Prosecutors:
Build positive relationships with students, teachers, parents, and others to help create a culture of tolerance and respect
Engage in proactive activities to prevent bullying
a. Avoid harsh, inflexible strategies, such as zero tolerance policies
b. Use graduated sanctions for rule violations that are appropriate for the
developmental level of the child and the severity of the bullying
Become experts on state and local bullying laws
Provide supervision, and be present and vigilant for warning signs
Take part in efforts to investigate bullying and related behaviors
Take part in meetings with involved students and parents, where appropriate
Take appropriate action if a crime is involved
School Resource Officers have the unique role and responsibility of being an educator in the classroom, encouraging and modeling behavior for other adults in the school, and stepping in when they witness bullying
National Resources on Bullying
The Crisis Call Center offers free, confidential support for anyone in any type of crisis 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 or text CARE to 839863 for their Crisis Text Line.
The Teen Line connects teenagers with trained teenage volunteers to provide youth with someone to talk to of their own age. Call 310-855-4673, text TEEN to 839863, or download the Teen Talk App for support.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat with them via their website.
The Trevor Project provides support for LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, feeling suicidal, or looking for a place to talk 24/7. Call 1-866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat via their website.
If a school is not adequately addressing bullying based on a protected class such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, national origin, etc., contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by calling 1-800-421-3481 or email OCR@ed.gov.
If inappropriate images of a child are posted online, contact the Cyber Tipline at 1-800-843-5678 or make a report via their website.