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A hard truth about school bullying

Jim Dillon discusses the gap between student and staff perceptions of bullying in schools.

7 min read




Here is the hard truth: there are two very different versions of bullying in our schools. There is the version of bullying that many school staff members believe and the version that students experience daily. Both exist in the same time and space yet are worlds apart. The continued separation of the two is a key reason why bullying-prevention laws and programs fail to decrease the amount of bullying occurring in schools.

The two versions of bullying can be illustrated by contrasting data points. The student version of bullying is represented by national statistics based on anonymous surveys consistently indicating that approximately 20% of secondary school students report being bullied approximately two to three times per month. (E.g. A school with 100 students would have to report 400 incidents of bullying for the school year.) The staff version of bullying is represented by the over 75% of the schools in many states reporting zero incidents per year. 


School staff version of bullying

Many staff members, if they are candid, do not think that bullying is a serious problem in schools. For them bullying prevention laws, regulations and programs were generated in response to a few over-reported incidents hyped by the media.  Given the many expectations placed on them, many educators resent the added responsibility of having to devote time and energy to an issue that they don’t consider a problem in their school. The lack of reported incidents proves them right. Therefore, even the best bullying-prevention programs can fail to gain staff support and buy-in.

There are several reasons why the school staff version of bullying persists:

School staff typically don’t see or hear bullying while observing students. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the very human tendency to think, “what we see is all there is.” Given the many demands placed on them, it is not surprising that they do not actively seek data that could contradict their perceptions.

Bullying is defined as a rule violation or infraction that requires disciplinary actions. Dramatic incidents of bullying as depicted in the media are the rare exception in schools. Most bullying is subtle, occurring in brief gestures or expressions, under the radar of adult supervision.

Bullying requires apprehending and disciplining the perpetrator. When bullying is viewed as a crime or rule violation, evidence is required before someone can be accused of it and appropriately disciplined. When evidence is lacking or impossible to find, the bully may avoid punishment.

Bullying is now a quick and easy word to apply to all negative interactions. Staff think that there are many students who “cry wolf” in order to get other students in trouble. When many minor incidents are called bullying, it is easy to discount any complaint of it. In addition, responding to all bullying complaints would leave staff members little time for doing anything else.  

Bullying, when it does occur, is a byproduct of ineffective parenting. Many staff believe their job is to get students to meet academic expectations. Why should they take on the added task of doing what parents should be doing?

Bullying, or reporting it, is a symptom of overreacting to words or actions that should easily be ignored by students. Learning to deal with harsh words or actions is part of growing up. Expecting otherwise is an unrealistic expectation fostered by overprotective parents.


Student version of bullying

Most students would agree that the staff version of bullying is not relevant to their school experience. Most students don’t bully others and aren’t bullied, so all the anti-bullying rules and pledges they are required to follow reflect just another set of adult rules. The student version of bullying is intertwined and concealed in the social world of how people treat or mistreat each other.

Here is how the student version of bullying manifests itself in most schools:

Bullying creates fear, anxiety and uncertainty that negatively affects learning.  Students who are worried about how they will be treated in school have difficulty learning. All students should be entitled to an environment that allows them to learn.

Bullying is about how power in used in relationships. Those with less power in any social group are vulnerable to being bullied or mistreated and having it continue unabated.

Bullying is dependent upon the social structure of schools. Bullying is like pouring salt in a pre-existing wound of being disconnected from others. The social structure of many schools makes some students easy targets for mistreatment and bullying.

Bullying depends upon the justification and rationalization of any form of disrespect and mistreatment. Students can be tempted to exploit those who are socially disconnected to increase their own status with peers. Unless a school conveys a clear message that no one deserves disrespect, some students are less likely to resist this temptation. Staff members who treat students with disrespect give tacit permission for students to mistreat someone who appears to be deserving of disrespect.

Bullying as rule or a law violation fails to help students develop a moral conscience. Bullying, separated from values and principles, fails to empower students to respond to injustice. Subtle forms of bullying can be viewed as not against the rules. Students can view this behavior as being permissible, which also makes it more difficult for bystanders to intervene or report it.

The staff’s version of bullying that is conveyed to students prevents many of them from communicating their experience of bullying or their observation of it.  Students’ reluctance to share only reinforces staff’s perception and belief that bullying is not really a problem in the school.


Reconciling the versions:

Another hard truth of bullying is that many school environments inadvertently not only ignore the bullying that students experience but also contribute to its existence and persistence. All students learn the wrong lesson when they see peers endure mistreatment and witness educators who appear unconcerned and/or unable to stop it. 

The two versions of bullying can be reconciled when all members of the school have meaningful conversations that go beyond the typical ones about bullying.  

The central questions that all members of the school need to ask:

  • What type of a school do we want to have?
  • What is the difference between a community and a group of people?
  • How should people treat each other in this school?
  • What are the values and principles that should guide each person’s words and actions toward others?

Ultimately, the only sustainable solution to the problem of bullying is transforming schools into caring communities where each person belongs, is cared for and is valued. Any school can begin this process, no matter their starting point: a school becomes community as it strives to become one.

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 (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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