Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bullying vs. Peer Conflict: An Administrator's View

How to Stop Bullying in Schools

By Curtis Nightingale, assistant principal

My contention . . . is that there is less actual “bullying” going on today than ever before. What we have now in most cases is a misapplication of the term. I know it is an overused concept, but bullying prevention is all about education. 

We talk about about to how bullying in schools, but sometimes it's not bullying--it's just peer conflict.
The topic of how to stop bullying in schools has become fodder for a media grasping at ways to rationalize a disturbing trend of violence on America’s youth, by America’s youth. Parents, perhaps remembering their own experiences with bullies, or in reaction to sensationalized national stories of intense criminal behavior committed under the name of “hazing” or labeled as “bullying” by the media, have begun to pressure legislators and policy makers to rush to action to in some way stem the wave of what has been labeled a bullying epidemic.

In reality, what we truly see in the schools is nothing new. Yes, there are some new wrinkles thanks in large part to texting and social media sites—which I will address later—but for the most part we see the exact same behaviors that were going on 10, 20, even 50 years ago. My contention, however, is there is less actual “bullying” going on today than ever before. What we have now in most cases is a misapplication of the term. I know it is an overused concept, but bullying prevention is all about education.

This misapplication of terminology, in my opinion, is confusion between what is actually bullying behavior and what is peer conflict. By definition, bullying is the persistent and ongoing harassment, assaulting, and/or intimidation of an individual or group of individuals by one or more persons. By contrast, many of the alleged bullying reports I receive are related to an incident over a girlfriend/boyfriend, verbal exchange, or what have you. The latter is actually a peer conflict. While peer conflicts can quickly become an ongoing situation, most do not. Helping students and parents to understand this difference is key to mounting an anti-bullying campaign in your building. Through this process of educating your student body and parents, they can begin to see the behaviors for what they are. And in this way, you can also communicate diffusing methods and ways to seek/provide help.

Far and away, I spend the majority of my time dealing with cyber-bullying, which is the use of telecommunication devices and/or the internet to harass. This phenomenon, which has been studied extensively, is not just relegated to youth. People everywhere feel a sense of empowerment by being able to make rude, crude, and even vile comments about one another via technology—saying things they would never say in person. Very similar to the comment I am sure you have heard, where someone elects not to carry on a conversation via email for fear their comments will be misconstrued.

The ramifications of these emotionally charged encounters between students will often spill over into the school setting. Still, depending upon the frequency and parties involved, these may still be just peer conflict issues. Now, through the use of social media and enlisting the help of others to harass and intimidate the targeted individuals involved, these scenarios can easily escalate into bullying. It is then through educating our students about what their actions constitute that we can become a critical piece of the anti-­‐bullying message. Often kids don’t realize their one comment, when added to the one comment of 10 - 20 others, becomes an overwhelming force for someone to deal with.

The bottom line is a clear and concise definition of bullying and educating your faculty, students, and parents as to what constitutes bullying can go a long way to creating a climate that is well‐informed and resistant to these behaviors.

Curtis Nightingale is the assistant principal for Pratt High School in Pratt, Kansas. Prior to the education field, Curtis retired from a career in law enforcement.

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