A new research study released earlier this week demonstrated that being bullied is a risk factor for many persistent negative outcomes, highlighting once again why we are so concerned about bullying. Yet in our concern, we are losing sight of the very youth we want to protect. So eager to right the wrongs of bullying, we find ourselves determined to identify and punish the perpetrators, often forgetting that that alone will not mitigate the harm done to the youth who felt bullied.
Consider the required bullying policies detailed in laws now enacted in 49 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Nearly all focus on the potential consequences for the youth found to have been bullying others and a lengthy definition and investigation process to determine if bullying actually occurred. Of course, these components are necessary -- we want to let youth know what behaviors are considered inappropriate and be clear that engaging in such behaviors will result in consequences, but we also don't want to punish someone over behavior that can't objectively be deemed wrong. But through these considerations we send a strong message to those that feel targeted: If we cannot objectively determine if bullying happened, your experience doesn't count.
We live in a country that highly values the notion that someone is presumed innocent until evidence shows otherwise and that any punishment should be consistent with the "crime" that has occurred. The reality is bullying is incredibly hard to investigate and many incidents reported as bullying will not be determined as such. But, if a case of bullying was reported and a child feels bullied, even if others do not perceive or understand the incident to be bullying, something is wrong. And in our current system, once an investigation concludes, and the accused is either punished or not, we forget about the child who feels bullied.
We often forget one critical component central to headline-making research studies on bullying. The items used by researchers to determine groups of youth who have been bullied are most often reported directly from the youth themselves -- what we in the research business call "self-report." It is not others' perceptions of whether a youth has been bullied or the conclusion of an investigation, it is simply a youth's own understanding of their experience. That self-identification is what is related to the long-lasting effects we're so worried about.
Despite our efforts to address bullying, rates of bullying (measured again by self report) are flat. Simply responding to bullying by means of punishing the "bully" is not working. I've written previously about switching from an anti-bullying perspective to a bullying prevention perspective, meaning we need to create the environments that actually prevent bullying before it happens as opposed to simply reacting. But, bullying can and will still happen even in the schools and communities with the best prevention efforts. We also need to make sure that our responses to bullying are as productive and meaningful as our prevention efforts.
State legislatures across the country have begun to introduce new legislation to strengthen existing anti-bullying laws, in the hopes to see a better reduction in rates of bullying; yet the bills that have been introduced thus far continue the status quo. We need more than definitions, investigation procedures and potential consequences. We need to address those who feel bullied and not dismiss their experiences. To all lawmakers currently working on this issue and schools looking to refine their own policies and procedures, I have one simple suggestion: Add language that provides support and resources to those who feel as though they have been bullied, even if an investigation or our own subjective definition of bullying disagrees. (See also: "The Three Words Missing From Many Anti-Bullying Policies".)
This isn't a novel suggestion. The importance of providing support, regardless of any criminal proceeding or investigation, is emphasized for many other types of victimization, such as sexual assault or domestic abuse. We recognize the need to help those who experience such abuses to become empowered and to move beyond what has happened without judging or dismissing their experience. Though police departments may not provide these supports directly, they are often required to help refer those who report to local services and advocates. Why can't schools do the same?
I know some will argue that in our hypersensitivity to the word "bullying," everything has become bullying, and we need the definitions and investigations to separate "normal" youth behavior from the truly heinous; yet who is to say that the "friendly teasing" that seems harmless to an outsider isn't having a true effect. Providing support may help youth improve their skills to become resilient or handle conflict as well as address underlying insecurities and other factors that may be contributing to how youth are experiencing the bullying they perceive. It is only then will we truly address the impacts of bullying we fear most.
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