Bullying is a serious public health problem

Bullying2“Bullying has long been tolerated by many people as a rite of passage among children and teens. But bullying is not a normal part of childhood. It is a serious public health problem.” ~From Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy, and Practice, commissioned by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Bullying is a serious public health problem that continues to plague our children and young adults, both in and out of school. Despite best practices, continued media attention and anti-bullying school laws in all 50 states, bullying remains a real and devastating experience for all who are directly and indirectly involved in a bullying situation. Reducing and moving toward eradicating bullying, though, will take more than developing an awareness of the situation. It will also require understanding of the problem and implementation of the research- and evidence-based bullying prevention practices. Most importantly, bullying prevention is first and foremost an adult responsibility. As adults come together as a united front against bullying, they can model the community mindset and problem-solving skills critical to effective prevention and early intervention.

This post focuses on moving from awareness to understanding the problem of bullying. It is organized around these questions:

  1. What is bullying?
  2. Who is involved?
  3. How prevalent is it?
  4. What are the types?
  5. Who is most at risk?
  6. What are the effects??

What is bullying?
The term bullying describes an aggressive behavior with three distinct characteristics.

  1. It is unwarranted aggressive behavior with the intent to do harm. It is never deserved or provoked; it is not accidental, nor is it done in jest.Bullying
  2. Bullying is a repeated activity or one that has the potential to be repeated. The behavior is the focus here. The focus might change, but the behavior is repeated.
  3. It involves an imbalance of power. This characteristic is what separates bullying from other acts of aggression. A person believes he/she is superior to another person. The bullying is to maintain a sense of superiority and/or establish a power structure so the targeted person is reminded of his/her inferior place.

Who is involved in bullying?
In bullying situations, there are four different ways to be involved.

  1. Those who are engaging in bullying behavior
  2. Those who are targeted by another
  3. Those who both engage in bullying behavior and are targeted
  4. Those who witness

The most important consideration here is to keep the focus on behavior and involvement versus the labeling of a child/young person. For example, when children engage in bullying behavior, it might be tempting to call that child a bully. Labels reduce people into specific behaviors and often follow them throughout the school experience and beyond. These are children/young people who have engaged in unacceptable behavior.

Another note here is regarding those who witness. Although terms like bystanders are used frequently, especially with regard to their power in addressing bullying behavior, those terms are reflecting a range of behavior and share some responsibility in the event. For example, those who record video of the event and post it to social media solely for the purpose of exploiting the situation must share some responsibility. Some may witness an event and begin to taunt or cheer, sharing a new responsibility for escalating the incident. Sometimes those who witness hold potential to defend the person targeted; however, the culture is not healthy enough to prevent retaliation against someone who reports.

How prevalent is bullying?
Bullying 3Every two years the Center for Disease Control surveys students across the country. In 2015, 20 percent of American students reported being bullied on school property. This survey does not specify locations, such as bus or classroom, nor does it include bullying that occurs outside school property. In Michigan, the report is significantly higher, where 25 percent of Michigan students report being bullied on school property. In Oakland County, it is about 26 percent.

Another survey question asked about school safety. While it does not ask specifically about bullying here, it is important to note that 6 percent of students at both the national and state levels report they stay home on any given day because they do not feel safe on their way to school, at school or on their way home.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, bullying begins as early as kindergarten and peaks in sixth grade with 31 percent of students reporting being bullied. By 12th grade only 15 percent of students report being bullied.

What are the types of bullying?

  1. Physical: This is the traditional form and involves kicking, tripping, spitting. Bullying is more physical in form for younger children.
  2. Verbal: This spoken or written bullying and could involve harmful gossip.
  3. Social: This occurs more as children develop, with females developing sooner than males, and involves ostracism and withholding friendship.
  4. Cyber: This is bullying that takes place online through social media and online games. An important note is ample evidence shows cyberbullying often begins with an in-person incident.

Bullying 4

Who is most at risk?
Bullying can take place anytime and anywhere. That being said, certain populations are most at risk for bullying. Because bullying involves an imbalance of power, students who are perceived as different and, as such, inferior, are most at risk. In general, our most vulnerable students are the LGBTQ population and those who learn differently, especially those diagnosed with autism. Students are also targeted based on social power, so depending upon the context, body size, athletic ability and even wearing eye glasses can be perceived as inferior.

What are the effects of bullying?
Bullying affects everyone involved in a bullying incident, from the person targeted to those who witness the incident.Bullying1

  1. Academic effects: absenteeism, dropout, truancy, reduced performance
  2. Social effects: rejection, trouble keeping and making friends, fear and avoidance
  3. Physical health effects: sleep issues, unexplained aches, anxiety, appetite changes
  4. Emotional/mental health effects: withdrawal, poor self-confidence, depression, learned helpless

Now What?
Bullying remains a serious health concern, despite the attention it receives. Adults are the first line of defense in bullying prevention and being aware of the issue is only a small step forward. Awareness must move into a deeper understanding of the issue. Only from there can we begin to explore the research- and evidence-based efforts that can successfully reduce bullying in our schools.

Oakland Schools is hosting the second annual Community Conversation on Bullying, presented by Defeat the Label. To register, visit http://www.defeatthelabel.com/community-conversation.

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In addition, Bully-Free Schools: 2-Day Training is being offered by Oakland Schools on Nov. 1 and Feb. 9. Click here to register: https://www.smore.com/wbrx9.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Julie McDaniel is a culture and climate consultant within the District and School Services Department of Oakland Schools. McDaniel’s focus is on student safety and well-being, specifically bullying prevention, restorative practices and trauma intervention. She is a certified trainer for Bully-Free Schools and an advanced certified trauma practitioner and trainer for the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. Julie is a former English Language Arts teacher at Brighton High School. She earned an Master of Arts in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University, a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from the University of Michigan and an Education Specialist degree from Oakland University. Julie holds a Ph.D in Education from the University of Michigan. To read more of McDaniel’s blogs on bullying, visit https://jemmuldoon.blogspot.com/

Swearer Napolitano, S. M. (2003). Research on school bullying and victimization: what have we learned and where do we go from here? In Educational Psychology Paper and Publications (Vol. 154).

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/results.htm.

Rivara, F., Le Menestrel, S., & National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (U.S.). Committee on the Biological and Psychosocial Effects of Peer Victimization: Lessons for Bullying Prevention. (2016). Preventing bullying through science, policy, and practice. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Student reports of bullying: tales from 2015 school crime survey. Web Tables, NCES 2017. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017015.pdf.

US Department of Health and Human Services – https://www.stopbullying.gov/

Oakland Schools Bully-Free Schools site – https://oakland.k12.mi.us/instructional/curriculum-instruction/school-classroom/bullying/Pages/default.aspx

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