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Why it is hard to monitor bullying at schools — report

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The report, called “Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges and Universities” and just released by the American Educational Research Association at its 2013 meeting in San Francisco, is the work of a blue-ribbon task force that was charged with finding short- and long-term recommendations for institutions to address bullying of young people.

The report is divided into briefs which look at research on specific areas, including:

*Looking Beyond the Traditional Definition of Bullying
*Bullying as a Pervasive Problem
*Bullying and Peer Victimization Among Vulnerable Populations
*Gender-Related Bullying and Harassment: A Growing Trend
*Legal Rights Related to Bullying and Discriminatory Harassment
*Improving School Climate: A Critical Tool in Combating Bullying

The report starts off with the definition issue, saying:

Bullying is a highly varied form of aggression where there is systematic use and abuse of power. Bullying can include physical aggression such as hitting and shoving, and verbal aggression, such as name-calling (Espelage, 2012; Vaillancourtet al., 2008). It can also include social or relational forms of bullying in which a victim is excluded by peers or subjected to humiliation. Bullying can occur face-to-face or through digital media such as text messages, social media, and websites. There are mild, moderate, and severe levels of bullying.

Traditional definitions have seen bullying defined as:

*Unwanted, intentional, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance that is often repeated over time (Olweus, 1993).


*Actions of verbal and physical aggression that range in severity from making threats and spreading rumors to isolating or excluding others, to physical attacks causing injury. The formal definition of bullying includes all behaviors that fit the stated criteria. Therefore, even severe acts involving weapon use, gang activity, or crimes could fit the formal definition of bullying if they involve a power imbalance. Some researchers include these behaviors and some do not.

But researchers have largely not used the traditional definitions and the broad application of their work is open to question.

*Some researchers provide students with the traditional definition and then assess prevalence in small (not representative) samples. This practice ignores research showing that the use of a definition influences prevalence rates, and it does not consider findings that youth identify bullying with these components (Vaillancourt et al., 2008).


*National epidemiological studies provide a definition and simply ask students if they have been bullied or if they have bullied another student within a specific time frame provided. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) assessed two items of lifetime victimization (bullied on school property and bullied electronically; see Similarly, Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton, and Scheidt (2001) assessed victimization or perpetration at school or away from school since last term/semester with a total of four items.


*Other researchers simply provide youth with a list of behavioral descriptors of aggressive behaviors (e.g., name-calling, hitting, excluding), assess frequency within a specific time frame, and sum these experiences. Higher scores on these victimization and perpetration scales are considered a marker of severity, and the scales are used to study predictors of the phenomena, but no direct assessment of intentionality or power differential is assessed (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; Espelage, Basile, & Hamburger, 2012; Espelage, Green, & Polanin, 2012).


*Researchers typically assume intentionality, equate frequency reflecting the actions of many students with repetition from the same bully, and rarely assess the power imbalance directly (for an exception, see Rodkin, Espelage, & Hanish, in press). Some have argued that repetition is an index of severity but does not define bullying (Rodkin et al., in press).

The brief on bullying definitions concludes by saying:

Some bullying behaviors may overlap with aggression that meets the legal definition of harassment, assault, or school crime, but not all incidents of harassment or assault are bullying. Without the components of intentionality, repetition, and power combined in the behavior of the same person, bullying victimization is the same as school victimization.
Bullying is part of the larger phenomenon of violence in schools and communities. Educators and scholars should not limit themselves to the traditional definition. Since it is not fully clear to what extent victimization and bullying overlap, the public and researchers should assess both  victimization and bullying behaviors. Further, the examination of victimization should involve interactions among all community members, including youth, teachers, school staff, parents,and so forth. As a result of differences in definition, there is no consensus on the incidence of bullying or on trends over time. There is a need for researchers to agree upon how best to define and measure bullying and to reach consensus on comparable use. Research that distinguishes more carefully among types of bullying and levels of severity would make it possible to monitor levels of bullying and evaluate intervention efforts in a more standardized manner.

One section of the report says that bullying in K-12 is different than in college because

Higher education institutions have a diverse set of employee contracts, for part-time and full-time faculty, professional staff, nonprofessional staff, administrators, and student employees (graduate assistants, for example). The presence of varying types of employees alongside tuition-paying students results in unique power dynamics, which, in turn, lead to complexity regarding who is defined as victim or perpetrator; for example, students may bully or harass faculty despite faculty’s relative power in the institutional hierarchy. Colleges and universities also have unique structural aspects, such as tenure, that play a role in how bullying occurs.

Gender-based bullying is noted as a growing trend. It is defined as

… any unwanted behavior that enforces traditional, heterosexual gender norms. Its related to, and can overlap with, bullying. Forms of gendered harassment include sexual harassment; homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic harassment; and harassment for gender-nonconformity…

The report also says that one key tool to curbing bullying in schools is improving the school climate, an issue that adults and students in a school building often see differently. School climate surveys show that adults “often report that school safety is a mild or moderate problem, while students often report that it is a severe problem.”

Research-based ways to improve school climate include:

*Develop a shared vision among educational leaders and the entire school community about what kind of school they want their school to be.

*Assess the school’s strengths and needs in a comprehensive, reliable, and valid manner.

*Teach prosocial skills in regular classes, advisory classes, and other small-group experiences with opportunities for practice.

*Engage in prevention efforts that range from on-the-spot teaching with students who engage in teasing or bullying behavior to formal school-wide programs.

*Support partnerships among parents, educators, and mental health professionals who seek to interrupt the bully-victim-bystander cycle and encourage bystanders to be upstanders who do not allow bullying to continue.