Bullying has Become a Widespread Epidemic. Can you Help?

Sam had just moved into a new neighborhood in Houston, TX. The moving truck was still in the front of the house when he went for a bike ride to explore his new neighborhood. On his way back home, several boys taunted and tried to catch him before he made it up his driveway to safety – all because he was the new kid in the neighborhood.

After several years of avoiding this group, Sam was tricked with an invite to play a game of football in the front yard that turned out to be an ambush, resulting in a serious beating.

Ben lived in Norwood, CO until, while on a field trip with his wrestling team, he was lured to a bus by two high school upperclassmen who duct taped his hands together and sodomized him with a pencil. The perpetrators were given one day in-school suspension for their behavior.

These two real cases (the first boy was me) exemplify a problem with the current operational definition of bullying most often used in the literature, and with the public’s perception of bullying. The most common way of defining bullying is put forth by Dan Olweus in his book, Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do:

“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

This definition states that three elements are required for an act to be considered bullying:

  1. The behavior is unwanted and is physical or psychological in nature.
  2. The behavior is repeated over time.
  3. There is an implicit imbalance of power or strength.

This definition would underestimate bullying by excluding one-time acts. I contend that a behavior does not have to be repeated for it to be considered bullying. A person who perceives a total stranger as weak can bully the stranger with a single act. See both aforementioned cases.

Let’s look at another definition. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Education (DE) released a “new uniform definition” of bullying, provided at stopbullying.gov:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”

This definition would also underestimate bullying by excluding bullying by siblings, dating partners and adults. I can only presume that those qualifiers were included in this definition because the authors see “bullying” from a sibling or a dating partner similarly to hazing.

Consider the case from Norwood, CO described above. The perpetrators knew the victim well. In fact, their families had previously gone on vacations together. After the bus incident came to light, the town split with half of them supporting the victim and half supporting the perpetrators. Students who supported the perpetrators wore shirts to school taunting the victim. Students would ask the victim as they passed him in the hall, “What’s been up your butt lately?” and would leave harassing messages in his locker. The taunting from other students became too much to bear for the victim and his family so they eventually had to move.

Those who supported the perpetrators excused their behavior as simple hazing that should have been kept as an internal school matter and never reported to the authorities. The school did initially punish the boys, with a single day of in-school suspension, but the parents perceived the punishment as too light a sentence which is why they eventually reported the incident to law enforcement.

This single occurrence of bullying should make one consider the validity of the aforementioned definitions. I propose the following as a modification of the second definition instead:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another person that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”

I argue that this definition would provide a more accurate estimate of bullying and should be considered for adoption by martial artists teaching youth how to deal with bullying. The only way to truly address bullying is to understand the full scope of the issue.

Editors Note: Bullying has become a widespread epidemic. What you know intuitively about wide spread bullying, in this case, is reinforced by the perceived need for two federal agencies to insert themselves into the interpersonal exchanges of school-aged boys and girls. What I find baffling is apparent viral-like spread of the climate and conditions that can lead to bullying. Where are the parents of these kids?

The intensity and violence of bullying has also dramatically increased over the past 10-15 years. What factors are driving these violent acts? And finally, where are the school administrators in all of this? I personally know of one young man that was bullied at a private school in Houston near River Oaks. His safety and life were threatened with heinous and vivid verbal imagery. The school did almost nothing – talking to the offending boy about his behavior. After several parent / administrator conferences, the school admitted that they were trying to protect the offending boy, because his father was an alcoholic (thus he was going through a tough time). When the father informed the school that his son was going to “respond” to the bullying, the son was immediately threatened with suspension or expulsion if a response was to occur. Unreal.

The bottom line is bullying exists because we, as a society, allow it to exist. In our ever conforming, evolving, politically correct, the-offender-is-the-victim society, bullying will always exists and likely continue to grow. Parents need to instill in their children respect for self and others, and prepare each child for the eventual need to deal with bullying physically, mentally, and emotionally. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child – but it does require dedicated, purpose-driven, and loving parents to raise a well-adjusted one.

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