In an Era of No-Tolerance Policies, How Do You Know If It’s Actually Bullying?

bully featuredI’m in 8th grade. Gym class is the last class of my day and we’re doing basketball. We stand in line, waiting for our turn to practice shooting layups or something equally useless. I hate it. Not just because I suck at basketball but because a girl I’ll call R has decided the best use of her time is harassing me. She stands behind me and runs her hands down my arms and tauntingly says “I’m a lesbian. I’m in love with you.” A veteran of being teased at school, I stay grimly silent in the hopes that for once the adage “ignore her and she’ll leave you alone” is true. It isn’t. R continues her harassment, and unconsciously I roll my eyes with every incident. R begins mocking my eye-rolling, too. Eventually, after days or weeks of this, I haul off and slap her. No adult sees it but the other girls do. They take her side.

What I did was not bullying. What R did absolutely was. But in today’s atmosphere of no- tolerance policies and legislated bullying definitions, I probably would have gotten in more trouble than R.

There was a piece in the New York Times that talks about the push to define bullying too broadly as states move to institute anti-bullying laws. The piece criticizes the multitude of bullying definitions that end up encompassing too many incidents of conflict between kids. According to the Times:

The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.

That was precisely what R was doing to me. She was harassing me over a period of time and the result was that I was miserable. (I won’t guess as to her motives, I can only speak to my feelings). What I did was not reverse bullying. It was a single incident of retaliation. My motive was to get R to keep her hands and her words off me. It was an explosion born of circumstance, not the beginning of a behavior pattern.

The Times goes on to talk about the way kids, with their finely honed social radar, are capable of differentiating true bullying from garden-variety drama between students. The difference is  that drama eventually ends whereas bullying continues for longer terms. From the Times:

One way to better identify real bullying is to listen to how teenagers themselves describe their interpersonal conflicts. Most teenagers can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call “drama,” which, the researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have shown, is an accurate and common name for the ordinary skirmishes that mark most children’s lives. In fact, it’s drama that’s common, and bullying, properly defined, that’s less so.

Neither R or I was behaving well in my situation. However, until the moment I raised a hand to her, I was powerless. She had greater social standing and I was unable to reason with her or escape her. She was engaged in a pattern of behavior, on-going and malicious. However, it would probably fly under the radar of many anti-bullying laws because it was so small as to be nearly invisible to adults around us, especially given my teen-age hesitance to involve an authority figure.

My slap across her face, on the other hand, was a true act of violence, if an isolated one. But, at least in my memory, it is an act closer to drama than anything else. I was not a routine slapper. I didn’t keep going back and smacking her face each time she stood behind me in gym.

Obviously, acts of violence have no place in school and I would have deserved detention or maybe more for what I did. But I resent the idea that I might have been classified as a bully. It’s a label that, as the Times states, is hard to shake. Even now, 25 years since the incidents I described, I think of R only as a bully. She exists one-dimensionally for me, though I’m sure time has wrought changes on her.  That’s why, after some debate, I decided not to use her name in this piece. Being labeled a bully publicly could impact her professionally and personally. Mislabeling a kid as a bully could affect them as they try to get into college or enter the workforce.

What parents and educators really need to do is police behavior instead of rushing to label and define it. R was harassing me. That was her crime. I hit her. That was mine. But neither of those acts is definitional to us. Incidents of those sort should be dealt with discretely, not as a blanket policy. Teachers, administrators, counselors and parents should be given leeway to examine the nuance of a situation and deal with it appropriately.  Again, from the Times:

It’s also crucial for the adults in the school to set the tone. They have to understand what bullying is and what it’s not, respond when they see a domineering child going after a victim, and foster the strong ties with students that make all the difference for children’s sense of belonging and decisions about where to turn when they need help.

Our education system is so desperate to standardize everything from student performance on tests to behavior patterns that we have lost sight of the dramatic individuality of kids. It’s time to stop looking at the forest and instead take some time to notice the trees.

Photo credit: photo stock

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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