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BULLYING: What It Is and What You Can Do

by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.

Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness

Bullying is defined as any intentional written, verbal or physical act by someone else that results in harm to the bullied individual's body, interferes with his/her education, impacts the bullied individual's school environment, intimidates the victim, and/or damages the individual's property. In order to meet the definition of bullying, the threatening behavior must impact the bullied individual in a severe way, occur over and over again, and involve an imbalance of power.

Verbal bullying may involve verbal and/or written behavior, including teasing, name-calling, threatening someone, or making sexually inappropriate comments. Social bullying may involve excluding someone, spreading rumors about someone, or embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying may involve stealing lunch money, shoving/tripping/spitting on someone, hitting/pushing/kicking someone or breaking the bullied individual's possessions.

Bullying is, by definition, repetitive. One instance of teasing or taunting is rarely actionable. However, as the frequency and severity of the teasing increases, so does the likelihood of it being considered verbal bullying. For instance, calling someone a name once over a period of a year is not actionable without more evidence that the individual engaged in other behaviors that fit the definitions above.

Harassment is also a form of bullying and involves discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion or cultural background, disability, weight or sexual orientation, and again involves conduct that is frequent and invoked by one who has power over another.

To meet the legal standards [for recovery on a bullying claim in school,] the school must have known that the bully has engaged in bullying on a previous occasion or the school must have allowed other students to engage in similar destructive behavior.

Types of bullying

• Verbal

• Physical

• Sexual

• Relational

• Prejudicial

• Cyberbullying

What to do

Many bullies have been victimized themselves. Therefore, whether direct victim or alleged perpetrator, we must be aware of potential warning signs and work to prevent bullying. Victims often evidence changes in emotional, social, behavioral and/or academic functioning.

If you believe that a student is a victim, encourage him or her to speak with you, a teacher, school administrator, school support personnel (e.g., guidance counselor, school nurse, school social worker, school psychologist, etc.) or a healthcare provider (e.g., pediatrician, counselor, psychologist, etc.). If he or she is in danger, err on the side of caution and telephone 911.


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