John Leo, staff writer for U.S. News and World Report, offers his observations on the currently hotbutton issue of bullying in the United States. Focusing on definitions in a national study, he argues
that rumors and dirty looks and putting up with horrible classmates are all part of growing up and
should not be classified as bullying.
Do Gossip and Rumors Count as Punishable Behavior?
Now we have a big national study on bullying, and the problem with it is right there in the first
paragraph: Bullying behavior may be “verbal (e.g. name-calling, threats), physical (e.g. hitting), or
psychological (e.g., rumors, shunning/exclusion).” Uh-oh. The study may or may not have put
bullying back on the map as a major national issue. But it rather clearly used a dubious tactic: taking
a lot of harmless and minor things ordinary children do and turning them into examples of bullying.
Calling somebody a jerk and spreading rumors counted as bullying in the study. Repeated teasing
counted too. You achieved bully status if you didn’t let the class creep into your game of catch, or if
you just stayed away from people you didn’t like (shunning/exclusion).
With a definition like that, the total children involved in either bullying or being bullied
themselves ought to be around 100 percent. But no, the bullying study says only 29.9 percent of the
students studied reported frequent or moderate involvement-and that total was arrived at by lumping
bullies and their victims together in the statistics.
The low numbers and highly debatable definitions undercut the study’s conclusion that bullying
is a “serious problem for U.S. youth.” Of the 29.9 figure, 13.0 percent were bullies, 10.6 percent were
targets of bullying, and 6.3 percent were both predators and victims. The study done by the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is based on 15, 686 questionnaires filled out by
students in grades six through 10 in public and private schools around the country.
We have seen the statistical blending of serious and trivial incidents before. The American
Association of University Women produced a 1993 report showing that 80 percent of American
students have been sexually harassed, including a hard-to-believe 76 percent of all boys. The AAUW
go the numbers up that high by including glances, gestures, gossip, and naughty jokes. The elastic
definition encouraged schools and courts to view many previously uncontroversial kinds of expression
as sexual harassment. Before long, schools were making solemn lists of harassing behaviors that
included winking, and calling someone “honey.”
Another set of broad definitions appeared when zero tolerance policies descended on the
schools. Antidrug rules were extended to cover aspirin. Anti-weapons regulations covered a rubberknife used in a school play. Just two months ago, a third grader in Monroe, La., was suspended for
drawing a picture of G.I. Joe. Now the anti-bullying movement is poised to provide a third source of
dubious hyper regulation of the young. One anti-bullying specialist says “hard looks” and “stare-
downs”-everyday activities for millions of hormone-driven adolescents-should be punishable offenses
under student codes.
This has all the makings of an anti-bullying crusade with many of the same wretched excesses
of the zero-tolerance and anti harassment campaigns. Serious bullying can be ugly. Parents and
schools should stop it and punish offenders. And schools should do whatever they can to create a
culture of civility and tolerance. But rumors and dirty looks and putting up with horrible classmates
are a part of growing up. So are teenage tendencies to form cliques and snub people now and then.
Adults shouldn’t faint when they see this behavior, or try to turn it into quasi-criminal activity.
Another pitfall: in focusing on gossip, rumors, and verbal offenses, the crusade has the
obvious potential to infringe on free speech at schools. Will comments like “I think Catholicism is
wrong,” or “I think homosexuality is a sin,” be turned into anti-bullying offenses? The crusade could
also demonize those who bully, instead of helping them change. Some of the anti-bullying literature
circulating in Europe is hateful stuff. One screed calls “the serial bully” glib, shallow, evasive,
incapable of intimacy, and a practiced liar who “displays a seemingly limitless demonic energy.” Yet
a lot of the academic literature reports that bullies often aren’t very psychologically different from their
victims. And the national study says a fifth of bullying victims are bullies themselves.
The example of Europe’s more advanced anti-bullying crusade should make Americans
cautious. The European campaign has expanded from schools into the adult world and the
workplace. Several nations are considering anti-bullying laws, including Britain. Definitions are
expanding too. A proposed anti-bullying law in Portugal would make it illegal to harass workers by
giving them tasks for which they are overqualified. Deliberately giving employees erroneous
information would count as bullying too. Ireland’s anti-bullying task force came up with a scarily
vague definition of bullying: “repeated inappropriate behavior, direct or indirect,” which could lead to
“reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.” Imagine what the
American litigation industry could do with wording like that.
It’s time to stop and ask” Where is our anti-bullying campaign going?
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