Bullying is universally defined by three criteria:

1. An aggressive behavior with the intent to cause harm or induce fear in the victim.

2. The bully is perceived by the victim as being physically, intellectually, or status-wise more powerful and domineering.

3. The bullying behavior is repetitive or chronic.

We would like to add that bullying behavior is always unprovoked, i.e., it is never the victim’s fault. And bullying always occurs in circumscribed social settings in which many of the group members know or are acquainted with one another. In the United States, 10 to 15 percent of students bully or are victimized on a weekly or more frequent basis. This type of frequent and chronic bullying has been shown to elicit serious deleterious effects on the victim as well as the bully.

Bullying takes on several different forms: it can be face-to-face or done through indirect means such as rumor mongering, internet postings (a form of cyberbullying), exclusion, ostracism, and attempting to rally peers against an individual. Bullying can be primarily designed to physically hurt, shame, cause psychological distress, and/or to humiliate or and negatively impact one’s social relationships or relational bullying (see Michael’s podcast on Relational Bullying). Bullying can be verbal, physical, or electronic in mechanism. The explicit or implicit motivational basis for bullying can be based on wide ranges of attributes, including but not limited to race, religion, looks, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, body type, or academic abilities and inabilities. Some of these attributes are included in State anti-bullying laws and some are included in State and Federal discrimination laws. In addition, a child may be bullied simply because the bully doesn’t like him or her and/or the victim responds in an immature way to bullying. Typically, the victim has low peer- group status. And not to be forgotten, bullying occurs not only among students but between adults as well and between teachers and students, a phenomenon that has begun to be recognized as a serious problem.

One of the key goals of any bullying prevention program is to help the students (as well as staff) who witness bullying in their schools to report as well as discourage such bullying behavior. As illustrated here, it is important to note, that bystanders can play several distinct roles, e.g., the provocateur, an active supporter of the bully, and as a defender of the victim. The key is to move those on the left of the diagram to the right side of the circle. See Michael’s table of What Works about bullying prevention strategies and Michael’s list of Additional Resources.

Our approach to school bullying prevention focuses primarily on the nature and quality of the social and academic atmosphere in a school, or school climate. It is the school climate that perpetuates student and staff norms and it is the school climate that facilitates or inhibits bullying behavior. School climate is comprised of five dimensions (see Michael’s table of Dimensions of School Climate): School Attachment or Bonding, Perceived Safety and Fairness, Opportunities for Student Contribution, Interpersonal Relationships, and the physical setting (see also Michael’s School Climate Change Paper as well as his paper on Counseling approaches to bullying. Of course, family dynamics are important as well. Conflict within families often spills over into the school. See Michael’s Tips for Parents.

We would also like to frame the problem of bullying in terms of human rights, primarily utilizing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 19 of the CRC explicitly requires that schools protect children from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.” The UN Committee on Human Rights, elaborating on Article 19, suggests that the “school environment” must reflect “the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of the sexes, and friendship amongst all people, whether ethnic, national and religious groups as well as people of indigenous origin.” Likewise, Article 16 forbids “unlawful attacks on his or her {the child’s} honour and reputation.” A school which allows bullying or any other violent and exclusionary practices is in violation of Article 29 of the CRC (see Michael’s paper on Bullying and Human Rights as well as his paper on Monitoring Human Rights in Schools).

Finally, we believe that litigation is a last but necessary option that should be used only when schools have been stubbornly resistant to working with parents and responding appropriately to chronically bullied students. Forty-eight states have passed anti-bullying legislation, however, the definitions, requirements, and sanctions vary enormously from state to state, and few if any conform to the accepted academic definition of bullying. While drawing on anti-bullying laws, most litigators wisely choose to use state and federal anti-discrimination laws in their primary complaint, laws that in the vast majority of cases are applicable to these types of cases and generally have more teeth. Finally, see Michael’s Additional Resources on bullying in schools as well as his Review of the Movie Bully.