Not everything is “bullying”

Every time I speak to assistant principals they tell me how swamped they are with reports of bullying.  I’m told this often comes up when the A.P. contacts a parent about some completely unrelated disciplinary situation. The parent responds with “Well….I know she shouldn’t have done that, but you know they have been bullying her for the past six months.”  This is often the first time the bullying has been reported. 

It’s a good thing that we have gotten serious about eliminating bullying from our schools.  But not every playground fight is bullying.  One of the challenges for school administrators who are charged with investigating bullying allegations is explaining the difference between bullying and other types of misconduct. 

Our legal definition of bullying includes four components. There has to be 1) action; 2) effect; 3) severity; and 3) motivation.  When there is a fight on the playground you may have action and effect, but you don’t necessarily have the severity or the motivation that signifies bullying. 

The definition is in Section 37.0832 of the Texas Education Code.  It defines “action” to include physical, verbal, written or electronic communication. 

It defines the effect as causing physical harm, property damage, reasonable fear of these things, or a major disruption of school or a classroom, or an infringement on the rights of the target of the action.

Severity is incorporated into the definition with words like “severe, persistent or pervasive” such that there is an “intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment.”  The statute tells us that bullying could occur through a “pattern of acts” but if it is a single act it is bullying only if it is “significant.”  All of this indicates that minor incidents do not amount to bullying.

As for motivation, the statute requires a finding that the bullying “exploits an imbalance of power.”  If there is no exploitation of an imbalance of power, there is no bullying.

Sometimes you have two students going at each other, both verbally and physically, but there is no imbalance of power to exploit. That may be a violation of your code of conduct, but it’s not bullying. 

It’s challenging for A.P.s to have to explain to parents why the incident that they think of as “bullying” may not be labeled as such by school officials.  But remember, just because you’ve concluded that the action did not justify the B label does not mean that you are condoning it.  Minor incidents that do not meet the statutory definition need to be addressed.  The best way to keep things from becoming “severe, persistent or pervasive” is to step up and take action on the minor things. 


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!