Let’s retire the word “bullying.”

At a workshop I was facilitating, a teacher shared a story about a high school girl who complained that a classmate made a negative comment about her clothes.  She tried to help the girl not overact to that comment because it would make the situation worse. The teacher thought that the girl who complained needed to learn how to handle these situations. That story, however, triggered an animated discussion by the other participants about whether the girl was bullied. Convincing arguments were made on both sides of the debate.

After listening to these strong reactions and failing to facilitate a more productive discussion, I realized that the word “bullying” was "getting in the way" of productive discussions on how to help students. Here is an analogy: a bleeding student goes to the nurse's office and needs to wait until the injury is correctly identified as a cut, laceration, gash, etc., before it is treated. Likewise, our well-intentioned efforts to prevent and reduce bullying has inadvertently created confusion and misdirection for educators; too much time and energy has been devoted to defining students' words and actions after they have done something wrong and less on actually helping students navigate their social world.

So, I propose that it's time to retire the word "bullying."

Since my proposal might trigger serious alarms among the many educators who have devoted their professional lives to addressing the problem of bullying, I will acknowledge several valid objections to my proposal. I am in full agreement that many students are harmed in the school environment and this requires our full attention. For too long a time, prior to 1999, the problem of bullying was easily dismissed and often ignored.  In addition, the absence of having a definition of bullying and policies in place prohibiting it, contributed to having the problem persist in the school environment. Those are legitimate risks, but, given how little progress has been made in reducing levels of bullying -- as research seems to indicate -- they might be risks worth taking.

 “Retire” does not mean eliminate or forget.  Retire is defined as “to move away or withdraw, as for rest or seclusion; to fall back or retreat, as from battle; to go to bed.”  The word “bullying” will not disappear from our vocabulary or our awareness. But the problem of bullying in our professional discourse and culture has traveled a path from nothing to everything and nowhere to everywhere.  Unfortunately, at both ends of this continuum, words tend to lose their meaning hence a change in vocabulary could provide some relief from what many educators refer to "bullying fatigue." Retiring the word “bullying” will move it from the forefront to the background of our thinking and professional discussions.

Retiring the word "bullying" could provide the opportunity for educators to explore a more productive way of framing the issue and responding to it.

Once the problem of bullying in schools became a prominent issue in the media, laws and policies declared bullying as being tantamount to a crime, and a criminal justice framework was adopted for addressing the problem.  This framework now governs and guides how educators and students perceive, think about and respond to the problem.  This criminal justice framework, designed for serious social problems, works best for discrete, observable behaviors, i.e. assaults, robbery, driving while intoxicated, because there is a law enforcement apparatus is in place to monitor people's behavior and respond when those laws/limits are exceeded.  This framework also works because most citizens are responsible and law abiding.

The criminal justice framework, however, is maladaptive and counterproductive in schools for several other reasons:

  • Most acts that could be identified as bullying are not dramatic or observable by most staff.  They typically happen in plain sight undetected by staff.  Many students who bully or demean others also learn how to do so without getting caught.
  • The social context is a critical component for determining the difference between bullying and non-bullying words and actions.  Calling a vulnerable student with few friends and little or no social support a negative name can be extremely damaging and would be considered bullying. Calling another less vulnerable student that same name could have little or no impact and therefore would not be bullying.
  • Students are not fully formed adults. They are works in progress who we should expect to have difficulty in consistently saying the doing the right thing in social environment of school.  Although they can make mean, hurtful and stupid statements that negatively affect their peers, they should not be viewed or treated like criminals. They are other workable and effective ways to hold them accountable and help them learn more responsible ways to interact with others.
  • Research has been clear in attributing bystander behavior as the key element in preventing and reducing bullying.  A criminal justice framework focuses on the perpetrators and victims of law violations.  The great majority of students who don't bully or get bullied might feel that their primary responsibility is just to follow the rules and avoid getting involved in helping vulnerable and less popular peers.
  • The criminal justice framework adds an element of fear to the school environment that tends to make people more self-centered. Student who get accused of bullying are more likely to deny it to avoid punishment or being labeled. Parents will be more likely to defend their child for the same reasons. Teachers can be more reluctant to intervene in possible bullying incidents because they are viewed as high stakes discipline problems.
  • Administrators can feel trapped and vulnerable to lawsuits especially when they can't gather enough evidence to prove that a student bullied and therefore can't fairly discipline that student. To the complaining parent insistent on discipline/punishment for the student they know bullied their child, that administrator is not protecting their child.

Retiring the word "bullying" could release the problem of bullying in schools from this criminal justice framework. This would reframe the problem of bullying from merely stopping a negative behavior, to a positive challenge of creating an emotionally and psychologically safe environment that involves educating all members of the school community.

One addition analogy to clarify my proposal: Like traffic laws, anti-bullying laws and policies can stay in place and can be used appropriately when limits are exceeded, but like roadways where true safety is a result of people learning to drive safely and responsibly, schools will be safer places when all members of the school community learn better and more responsible ways of treating each other.

Words do matter and what we talk about determines how we subsequently act. Instead of talking about monitoring and enforcing laws/violations on the margins/limits, educators need to focus on the center of the school environment: the social world the students experience everyday. The challenge of creating a safe, supportive and caring environment for each and every student should be the responsibility of and involve the entire school community, not just those in authority.  This challenge can be met when staff, students and parents use the right words in their conversations about doing what is right. These conversations could start with some simple and clear questions: What kind of a school do we want to be? How should we treat each other in our school?

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of "Peaceful School Bus", "No Place for Bullying", "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" and the picture book "Okay Kevin."

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