Blog: The Educated Reporter

In Case You Missed It: Task Force Wants to Redefine Bullying

I’m traveling this week, and while I’m gone I thought I would share a few recent posts that you might have missed the first time around. 

When it comes to student bullying, a task force of education researchers wants schools to focus more on addressing the underlying issues contributing to bad behavior and spend less time worrying about how to define it.

Spurred by recent school shootings and student suicides, last year the American Educational Research Association decided for the first time to formally address bullying at the K-12 and higher education level. The task force, made up of experts from a range of fields, considered existing research, identified effective policy and practice, and compiled recommendations to help schools develop more effective interventions.

The term “bullying” itself is problematic because it’s become a catchall phrase for everything from relatively minor examples of unkind behavior to more serious incidents that meet the threshold for criminal acts, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-chaired the’s task force.

“How about we rein it back in?” Espelage suggested at the AERA’s annual meeting in San Francisco where the new report was previewed. “In some ways, our obsession over ‘what is it’ is has stalled us in creating safe schools.”

As the report notes, the conventional definition of bullying is “unwanted, intentional, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance that is often repeated over time.” In some instances there is physical aggression such as punching or hitting, and in other cases more subtle methods are used to intentionally humiliate or exclude an individual from a group.

However, the report concludes, because “bullying is part of the larger phenomenon of violence in schools and communities … educators and scholars should not limit themselves to the traditional definition.”

Espelage expanded on this idea using her own experiences as a legal witness. She said in several cases involving the suicide of a student who had been allegedly bullied, teachers explained they had held off on intervening early on because they believed the school’s policy required them to first document pattern of aggression. Instead, schools should be training staff to respond swiftly – rather than making concerns about how to categorize the incident the first priority, she said.

So what’s next? The task force wants public agencies and educators to work more closely together in tracking and responding to school bullying, which in turn will mean more reliable and consistent data for researchers to do their work. Ron Avi Astor, a professor of urban social development at the University of Southern California and co-chair of the task force, said there are plenty of questions researchers can’t yet answer about student aggression or the best means of addressing it. But building a clearer definition of what bullying is – and isn’t – just might prove to be a good starting point.

For more on these issues, check out the Story Starters online resource for School Climate & Safety. EWA also recently hosted a webinar with Slate editor Emily Bazelon, discussing her new book “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.” You can catch the replay here