Bullying vs. conflict; is there a difference, and if so, what differentiates one from the other?
This legitimate question has been brought up quite a bit lately nationally as well as in public schools for obvious reasons. One doesn’t have to be a news hound to be aware of all the media attention surrounding the subject of bullying. Lawsuits, suicides and depression are just a few of the related outcomes of bullying behaviors.
The Tennessee Code Annotated § 49-6-1014 provides: “Harassment, intimidation or bullying, like other disruptive or violent behavior, is conduct that disrupts a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe environment…“
So, what, exactly constitutes bullying?
According to Leslie Farmer, Assistant General Counsel for Civil Rights at the Tennessee Department of Education, “bullying includes verbal acts, name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating. It does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents”.
The above statement is certainly open to subjective argument. Can we really stop every 3rd grader from a name calling incident? Can we really stop a 6th grader from writing an unkind note about a classmate? Every time? Does one unkind word without the intent to harm really constitute bullying? Aren’t we all guilty? Aren’t some of these lesser incidents just part of growing up? How do we define “lesser”? Names that hurt me might not hurt you. Who’s the judge? Is the can of worms fully open now?
Of course, we can’t control every aspect of student behavior, but some guidelines follow as to what might be a case of simple conflict resolution; effectively handled by the students themselves and perhaps the aid of a teacher or counselor - or a case of bullying or harassment which requires swift and firm discipline from appropriate administration.
Bully/victim conflict includes an imbalance of power or perceived power. This power may be social, economic or cognitive or simply a case of numbers. In some way the bully has an unfair advantage. The frequency of the behavior is also important to consider as is the actual effect on the target. People react differently to different things. Whenever the target is truly traumatized, it requires adult sanctions and a consequence plan.
Normal peer conflict implies a balance of power, less frequency and lack of real victim trauma. There may not be a “victim” at all in reality as both parties may feel victimized or “in the right”. They both may well be. In cases like this, students may do best with mediation, re-teaching of conflict resolution skills, or other assistance as needed. However, intervention should take place only if necessary. Allow students to resolve their own conflicts when and if they can. “Bullying” has become quite a legally charged buzzword and is tossed around probably too often. Every rude, careless or unkind behavior does not constitute bullying. When adults run to the rescue for every conflict, they rob children of the opportunity to learn important coping skills they will need later in life.
Never hesitate to contact your child’s school if you think your child is truly being bullied. Your child may tell you not to, or be afraid things will get worse. However, that’s usually not the case, and it will certainly continue if nothing is done.
Among the excellent resources for parents and students is this website.