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State-Level Bullying Practices
Collection of Information About State-Level Bullying Practices
Second, a search using the LexisNexis search engine (for the full text of Statutory codes, Advance Legislative Services, and the state constitutions) was conducted to obtain information on state laws related to bullying. A search was conducted for each state, using the words "bully" and "bullying." Fifteen states have enacted laws that include the term "bullying" (as of July 2003). Results from this search were compared with responses from state representatives. When there was disagreement, information from the state representatives was used. For states from which there was no response to our survey, the LexisNexis search provided the information.
Third, data from state legislators and LexisNexis were summarized. This table was sent to state representatives in June 2003 for feedback, corrections, and updates. Twenty-two state representatives responded to the e-mails, including representatives from seven states that had not responded to the original request for information.
Summary of State Policy and Practices
Ironically, although the U.S. Department of Education has developed a flier (U.S. Department of Education, 1998) with evidence-based definitions and research on bullying, state legislators have produced diverse legislation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, bullying is defined as: "intentional, repeated hurtful acts, words or other behavior, such as name-calling, threatening and/or shunning committed by one or more children against another. The victim does not intentionally provoke these negative acts, and for such acts to be defined as bullying, an imbalance in real or perceived power must exist between the bully and the victim. Bullying may be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual in nature" (p. 1). This definition is closely aligned with well-accepted research definitions (e.g., Olweus, 1993), yet state departments of education have not incorporated all components of this definition.
One conceptualization of bullying is that of a continuum of verbal and nonverbal aggressive behaviors that are commonly exhibited by students (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). At the extreme end of the continuum are behaviors of students who repeatedly victimize other students; their actions are not qualitatively distinct from those of other students on the continuum, they are simply more frequent and persistent. This idea that bullying lies on a continuum and that most students engage in some form of peer victimization suggests that perhaps bullying should be addressed in conjunction with other forms of peer aggression. However, this does not preclude accurately assessing this form of aggressive behavior. For example, a recent study by Solberg and Olweus (2003) indicates that the frequency and duration of victimization has a significant effect on victim outcomes. Specifically, marked negative consequences were found among those students who experienced bullying events two to three times in the previous month. Although the threshold of how "repetitious" bullying needs to be to have a generalized negative effect on a youth may vary by child, Solberg and Olweus's (2003) analysis provides a marker to possibly differentiate general aggression from bullying.
In addition, increased precision in defining bullying will affect prevalence research. Among the most commonly cited work on bullying prevalence in American schools is work by Nansel et al. (2001). In their survey, the definition of bullying provided to students included the following statement: "We say a student is BEING BULLIED when another student, or a group of students, say or do nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is teased repeatedly in a way he or she doesn't like. But it is NOT BULLYING when two students of about the same strength quarrel or fight" (p. 2095). Failure to specify that bullying is necessarily a pattern of behaviors or a relationship may produce higher prevalence rates and fall short of recognizing the unique functions that bullying serves. Taking a peer-relationship approach to understanding bullying has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Defining bullying as a specific type of peer aggression will aid in this pursuit.
As Limber and Small (2003) discuss, antibullying legislation is unfortunately intertwined with definitions and legislation addressing harassment. Harassment is defined as actions that are intended to target a member of a group of identifiable individuals who are protected by state and/or federal antidiscrimination legislation. This confusion and overlap of terms leads to political quarrels that could be avoided if bullying were more precisely defined. For example, although a law requiring school districts to develop policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying now exists in the state of Washington, some conservative groups in this state have expressed concerns that antibullying laws could infringe on students' rights to speak freely about their opposition to homosexuality (Zehr, 2001). The question of whether anti-bullying legislation should specifically include a clause protecting identifiable groups (based on characteristics such as sexual orientation) remains a topic of public debate. For example, antibullying legislation in the states of New Jersey and Washington currently incorporates a definition of bullying that includes a clause stating that bullying is motivated by a (real or perceived) distinguishing characteristic. It should be noted that many state antibullying laws do not pertain specifically to "bullying"; rather, they often address "harassment, intimidation, or bullying" or include the term "hazing." This combination of concepts and terms has repercussions for definitions, community responses, policies, and consequences.
A definition of "bullying" that takes a relational approach has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Interventions designed for victims of chronic peer aggression will differ from those developed for youth experiencing single or unrelated aggressive acts. If bullying is a relationship, then responses to bullies focus on changing a pattern of behavior and relating. If most aggressive acts are called bullying, it will be more difficult to develop an accurate knowledge base about bullying in American schools. In addition, none of the current definitions of bullying have formally operationalized the essential elements of the bullying definition: imbalance of power (one youth can and is using coercion) and intentionality (the bullying is done purposefully and with the intent to harm). Such information cannot be assessed merely through the self-report of either the bully or the victim because this assessment of necessity involves a reciprocal relationship. One strategy to explore power differences that have been attempted is the use of obvious size differences in stick drawings of possible bullying situations (Smith et al., 2002). Ultimately, only the bully knows his or her motivation (although they may have rationalized it in a self-supporting manner) and the victim only knows if she or he experienced harm (although even here there may be some forms of denial or self-protective reframing of the experience).
On the other hand, bullies and victims may not be the best judges of the motivation of their behavior and the interpretation of their emotional reactions. Cornell and Brockenbrough (in press), for example, found that self-reported bullying and victimization was inconsistent with teacher and other peer ratings of bullying behavior. The teacher and peer ratings were the most consistent and they were better predictors of future school discipline referrals. The findings of this study suggest that teachers and peers may be more objective judges of whether or not a power differential exists between students and if the impact of the bullying behavior was harmful. Even the most basic unanswered bullying research question: "How prevalent is bullying in American schools?" depends completely on how the term bullying is defined.
We have suggested that the prevention of the negative consequences of bullying in American schools will be enhanced if researchers, practitioners, and policy makers develop a shared understanding of bullying as a type of school aggression that has unique effects on bullies, victims, and bystanders. It is also necessary to recognize that most youth do not engage in bullying behaviors. Many students are in a position in which they are more powerful than another student and yet they do not abuse this power. Research is needed to better understand what prevents a student from using this power to bully other peers. For research to move forward in determining why many students do not chronically victimize their weaker peers, it is necessary to understand the specific aggressive behaviors of bullies and the functions that they serve.The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
- Furlong, Michael J., Morrison, Gale M., Greif, Jennifer L., School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32, Issue 3
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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