Understanding the Concept to Manage the Territory

by Dr. Jo Ann Freiberg

Columbine was the crucible. Whether because of its scale or because it happened in an upper middle class suburban community, what occurred in Littleton, Colorado forever changed how schools and communities in the United States respond to “bullying.” Prior to this event, the phenomenon of “bullying” was generally seen as a common, albeit irritating current reality, which seemed always to have been a part of American schooling.

Historically, “bullying” was treated more as a childhood “rite of passage” than as something to give to the courts or to legislate about. However, ever since Columbine in April 1999, there has been heightened awareness about the impact of “bullying” on the safety and climate in schools. And, because the Columbine High School “shooters” were both found to have been targets of “bullying,” state governments have gotten involved. There were no state anti-bullying laws before Columbine.

At present, 30 states in the nation have some form of “anti-bullying” legislation. [Update: Checking again as I update the site in May of 2022, all 50 states in the US offer legal protection against bullying in school.*] Georgia was the first to pass such a law in July 1999, a few short months after the tragedy in Littleton. All of these state laws contain some form of definition for the term, “bully,” or “bullying.”

Since definitions are by their nature prescriptive (Scheffler, 1960: 11 – 35), all of them contain practical implications. These definitions, as well as the practice necessarily following them, vary widely. As educators, we ought to be concerned to engage in reflection about these definitions and the highly negatively charged nature of the mixed word/concept, “bully,” itself. Until this kind of philosophical conceptual analysis is undertaken, there is relatively little hope of diminishing this real world phenomenon, no matter what it is called.

This paper will attempt to tackle this important philosophic exercise with the goal of actually improving educational practice. I will argue that the terms, “bully” or “bullying” should really be treated as we treat other inappropriate words, often referred to as “four-letter” or “swear” words, because of two main difficulties surrounding the concept. The first difficulty has to do with the negative connotation of the term as a mixed or loaded word. The other difficulty is with how to describe and define the perimeters of bullying itself. These two difficulties are interrelated.

Just as we would for certain verbal disputes (Engel 1976: 30 – 32), I think we would be far better off abandoning the terms “bully” and “bullying” in deference to more descriptive and emotionally neutral terms in the interest of creating safer schools. The significance of this paper should be fairly obvious. An important contemporary goal for public schools is to create safe and personalized learning communities that provide the optimal conditions for high quality academic achievement.

Where there is “bullying,” such environments are the antithesis of this goal. And, if school personnel are not able to get beyond the label of “bully” or “bullying” to manage the territory and diminish the social toxicity, safe and supportive learning environments will not be created. A necessary precondition of doing so is to deal with the word “bully” itself. This is what this paper seeks to do: to put the practical recommendations for diminishing bullying on hold until an analysis of the terminology and its benefit or lack thereof can be assessed. Then, the process can move forward: “Clarity before commitment.” The remainder of this paper describes the context and arguments for doing so.

The Landscape of “Bullying”

Research and targeted concern about the arena of bullying began in Scandinavia in the 1970s. Dan Olweus of Norway first studied this phenomenon in earnest (Olweus, 1978). His landmark work led to other countries doing the same, particularly Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

This level of interest and attention did not come to the United States until the post-Columbine era. Immediately after Columbine, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center engaged in research that found that most of the “shooters” were targets of bullying (Vossekuil, et al, 2002: 31). More recently, a group of Harvard researchers confirmed the same (Newman, 2004). Additionally, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted a survey of youth in grades 6 – 10 in all demographic arenas throughout the country in 2001 again to discover the same: bullying is wide spread and a serious problem for school-aged youth (Nansel, 2001).

Throughout all of this well-respected research and in countless other studies, books and articles, bullying is portrayed as a critical problem in American schools. What seems to be missing from the conversation is any recognition that there is minimal consistency in what is called “bullying,” throughout the literature as well as how the word “plays” in schools and communities, not to mention for the families that comprise them. Until such awareness is taken into consideration, there is little chance that schools will actually become safer, not just physically but also emotionally and intellectually.

A Mixed or “Loaded” Concept

Labels matter. “Bully” or “bullying” is a negatively charged word. No student wants to be called a bully, no parent will claim that his or her child is a bully, and no school happily admits that there is any bullying in that school. This reality stems not from the fact that certain behaviors have been experienced, but rather because of the connotation of the concept itself. In addition, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) emotionally paralyzes schools. Aside from worrying about meeting “adequate yearly progress” (AYP), there is language in NCLB that is equally bothersome: schools can be labeled “persistently dangerous” (PDS) and there is a common perception that if the school has any “bullying” that they could be so labeled not necessarily legally, but by the communities in which they reside.

In practice, there is wide a gulf between the legal and policy definitions that school lawyers have given to the terms “bullying” and PDS, and how families would hope these would be defined. Schools are overly cautious and tend to create vague and difficult to satisfy definitions.

For example, in Connecticut, to be labeled ‘persistently dangerous,’ a school would need to “meet the conditions in two of the following three categories of offenses, in each of three consecutive years, 1) Two or more gun-free schools violations (possession of a firearm or explosive device that resulted in expulsion form school); or 2) One “Other Weapon” incident resulting in expulsion per 200 students with a minimum of three such incidents; or 3) One violent criminal offense resulting in expulsion per 200 students with a minimum of three such incidents” (Sergi, 2003). Families, on the other hand, want definitions to provide clarity and embrace the goal of achieving truly physically, emotionally and intellectually safe schools.

Another way to say this is that in ordinary language, one might well assume that a PDS is one in which bullying is rampant. Each individual state determines its own legal definition of “persistently dangerous.” As with the Connecticut example, the definitional bar is typically set so high that it would be almost impossible for a school to be put on such a list.

These definitions focus exclusively on physical safety. Bullying may or may not be physical and in any case, bullying is not part of states’ definitions of PDS. However in practice, there is widespread reluctance on the part of schools to label inappropriate behaviors as being bullying, in part because they worry that such a link between bullying and being a PDS will be made. Further, if a school were to claim that bullying was a common occurrence, public perception would likely be that, legal definitions aside, the school is persistently dangerous and thus unsafe.

What is actually happening in the school may or may not reflect what a reasonable person would consider to be bullying or a PDS. The bottom line is that schools, and individuals, are much more comfortable describing inappropriate behaviors without assigning a label. Neutral description is palatable; emotionally coloring a behavior with a label that has a negative connotation is not.

On the other hand, schools actively seek to be labeled “blue ribbon schools.” The designation is enough to provide the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” into perpetuity, regardless of when the award was given and how many administrative, demographic, or school climate changes have occurred since. Being a “blue ribbon school” is another loaded term, albeit one with a positive connotation. Receiving the label of being a PDS or a school that has any bullying is the opposite.

Defining Bullying

There is no standard or consistent definition; all extant definitions are “stiupulative” and appear to honor Olweus, who was the first to provide a formal definition: A person is “being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students” (Olweus, 1978). In an analogous way, as Alfred North Whitehead (Whitehead, 1979: 39) said about philosophy, “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” defining the term comes down to a series of footnotes to how Olweus first laid down the term.

Definitions of bullying seem to share a few characteristics. Most include acts of harassment or intimidation that continue with regularity for a certain period of time, often for as long as six months or more. In a schooling context, bullying seems by definition to be restricted to student behavior, implying that adults do not engage in such acts, which is, of course silly. More important, is that such definitions leave adults not culpable for engaging in bullying behaviors.

Definitions of bullying vary widely in terms of their ambiguity and vagueness. For example, the landmark 2001 study conducted by JAMA, defined bullying simply as “intentionally harmful behavior that occurs repeated over time” (Nansel, 2001). Contrast this definition with the one found in the Connecticut bullying legislation: “any overt acts by a student or a group of students directed against another student with the intent to ridicule, harass, humiliate or intimidate the other student while on school grounds, at a school-sponsored activity, or on a school bus, which acts are repeated against the same student over time” (CGS 10-222(d), 2006).

The JAMA definition is overly simplistic and thus is both vague and ambiguous. The 2002 Connecticut definition, slightly changed in 2006, is much more restrictive, but is still open to a great deal of wide interpretation due to its inherent vagueness. What counts as an “overt” act? How is “repeated…over time” translated into practice? How do you prove “intent”? Why should adult behavior be explicated excluded?

These are important questions that impact practice in significant ways. Definitions are not just a group of words put together to describe practice. Definitions guide and in actuality dictate practice. In this case, depending upon how vague or restrictive, the definition determines how many individuals are involved in bullying in schools. Empirical studies suggest that anywhere from 5% to 30% of students are determined to be bullies and targets according to the definitional parameters.

Both the JAMA and Connecticut definitions were among the earliest to be created and used in the United States. More recently, other states have benefited from the practical lessons learned in these early years. Recent definitions move farther and farther away from the Olweus ancestry. Consider two more contributions. In 2006, South Carolina passed its “Safe School Climate Act.” In South Carolina, the arena is defined as follows. “’Harassment, intimidation, or bullying’ means a gesture, an electronic communication, or a written, verbal, physical, or sexual act that is reasonably perceived to have the effect of: harming a student physically or emotionally or damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of personal harm or property damage; or insulting or demeaning a student or group of students causing substantial disruption in, or substantial interference with, the orderly operation of the school. ‘School’ means in a classroom, on school premises, on a school bus or other school-related vehicle, at an official school bus stop, at a school-sponsored activity or event whether or not it is held on school premises, or at another program or function where the school is responsible for the child” (Code of Laws: Section 2. Chapter 63, Title 59, 2006).

This South Carolina definition introduces the use of the terms, “reasonable” and “substantial,” in reference to how a student would perceive something. Although open to interpretation, at least there is a standard that would more clearly rule in and rule out certain actions experienced by a student or group of students. It is also important to note that in the case of South Carolina, adults are implicitly held to account.

It is interesting that the focus is not on the negatively charged “bullying” arena but rather on the ultimate remedy for ameliorating bullying which is to create a school climate that does not support these behaviors. Additionally, the South Carolina definition seems to recognize that practice in schools is directly impacted by how bullying is defined in their stipulation. States that are passing legislation at present appear to be less concerned with honoring Olweus and more concerned with impacting practice.

Finally, six months ago, Delaware passed their “School Bullying Prevention Act.” Expressly, “the goals of this Act is [sic] to provide a safer learning environment for students attending…schools.” In their definition, bullying “means any intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act or actions against another person that a reasonable person under the circumstances should know will have the effect of: (1) Placing a person in reasonable fear of substantial harm to his or her emotional or physical well-being or substantial damage to his or her property. (2) Creating a hostile, threatening, humiliating or abusive educational environment due to the pervasiveness or persistence of actions or due to a power differential between the bully and the target; or (3) Interfering with a student having a safe school environment that is necessary to facilitate educational performance, opportunities or benefits; or (4) Perpetuating bullying by inciting, soliciting or coercing an individual or group to demean, dehumanize, embarrass or cause emotional, psychological or physical harm to another person” (14 Delaware Code 4112(D), 2007).

Delaware’s definition elevates the notion of “reasonable” beyond what the targeted student would perceive to what “any reasonable person under the circumstances would know.” This is a significant change, and one that provides more clarity to assessing whether or not something is considered an act of bullying. This definition also includes a “hostile environment,” which is a central feature of protected class harassment (sexual and racial), but was not considered by Olweus and does not show up in any legal definition of bullying in the U.S. until the Delaware legislation. And, as with the South Carolina definition, adults are held accountable.

As mentioned earlier, one of the hallmarks of most common definitions of bullying is the difficult vague notion of “repeated over time.” This condition is missing from both the South Carolina and Delaware laws, and, the significance of its exclusion cannot be underestimated. Logically, if something is “repeated over time,” then there must have been a first time. Why would any reasonable person want to wait to intervene until some arbitrary time after an initial inappropriate incident of hurtful behavior? Why is any number… even one act of hurtful behavior satisfactory? Clearly it is not. The earlier in the cycle that “bullying” can be stopped, the better off everyone is. South Carolina and Delaware appear to reflect this understanding. Managing bullying is not merely about intervention, but more importantly about prevention. Both of these definitions are objectively superior to early American attempts to define the term in an effort to manage the territory.

Despite the definitional improvements, there still remains a serious flaw in both the South Carolina and Delaware definitions: the word “bully” itself. No amount of restrictive linguistic clarity will change the fact that “bully” and “bullying” are so inherently negatively charged. If the goal really is to create physically, emotionally and intellectually safe schools where all children can thrive intellectually and socially, then rather than continuing to refine and hone in on better ways to assign the word, “bully” to certain behaviors, why not change the conversation entirely?

Conclusion: Is this really about practice?

Whether for research or legislative purpose, defining bullying contains an implicit goal: creating safe, respectful and “bully-free” schools. In the past decade since Columbine, defining the term has evolved from simplistic and vague descriptions to increasingly complex and confining ones. What is happening in schools with respect to realizing the goal is likely the reason for such definitional changes. Legislating what bullying is has not yielded the hoped for result. What now? Another way to state this problem would be to ask not how the letter of the law can be satisfied, but what must be done to honor the spirit of the law?

No amount of definitional refining will ever change the connotation of the term. “Bullying” will always be so negatively charged that even with increasingly careful and targeted stipulations, it is virtually impossible to get past how the word “plays” in practice. If we can exchange the term for one less offensive (“mean” or “peer cruelty”) there is a better chance of bringing relevant groups together in an effort to ameliorate the phenomenon.

Consider the following. Ask any parent/guardian if they are purposely raising a bully and no one will answer “yes.” Ask any child if he or she is a bully and the result is the same. However, if you survey the same group of adults and inquire if their children are ever “mean” to anyone else (call someone a name, make fun of someone, laugh at another person or tell someone they can’t sit with or play with someone), honest affirmative admissions are common. The very same child who says they don’t “bully” will admit that the very same behavior was “mean” and “not nice.” Everyone is mean from time to time. For some reason, owning up to being “mean” is perceived to be more descriptive and neutral and far less threatening than describing the very same person or act as being “bullying.” Bullying carries heavy negative emotional baggage; mean does not.

Aside from the issue of the loaded nature of the words, “bully,” or “bullying,” there are a number of other reasons why abandoning these words in deference to others makes sense. First, “bullying” is an inflammatory label, and that label does not provide a clear picture of the behavior(s) in question. It is highly likely to tell a child to, “Stop bullying!” and for that child to respond by saying, “What did I do?” The conversation might continue with, “You called him a name.” And, the child would just as likely answer, “That wasn’t bullying!” However, if the conversation began with, “Stop being mean,” there would much more likely be immediate understanding. Second, using “mean” avoids the problem of waiting to deal with behaviors until they are “repeated over time.”

All of the empirical research validates the view that catching the lower level antecedents to bullying and stopping those mean incidents when they are initially experienced, results in arresting the potential pattern of escalating cruelty (Wessler and Preble, 2003). Thus, dealing with “mean” in practice is much more helpful in reaching the implicit goal of creating safe and respectful schools.

Words matter and in the case of the terms “bully” and “bullying,” this is particularly true. Educators would do themselves a great service if in practice these words were treated as other offensive and inappropriate language. There is little, if anything to be lost by doing so and a great deal to gain: satisfying the spirit of legislating against bullying to create physically, emotionally and intellectual safe and respectful schools.


An Act Concerning Bullying Behavior in Schools, Connecticut General Statute 10-222(d), July 2002, amended in July 2006.

An Act to Amend title 14 of the Delaware Code to Establish the School Bullying Prevention Act (14 Delaware Code 4112(D).

Engel, S. Morris, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1976. Nansel, Tanja, JAMA, 2001:285:2049.

Newman, Katherine S., Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings; Basic Books, 2004.

Olweus, Dan, Aggression in the Schools; John Wiley & Sons, 1978.

Safe School Climate Act Section 2 (added) 59-63-110 South Carolina amended from 1976 in 2006.

Scheffler, Israel, The Language of Education; Charles C Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1960.

Vossekuil, Bryan, Rein, Robert A., Reddy, Marisa, Borum, Randy, and Modzeleski, William, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States; United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 2002.

Sergi, Theodore, Circular Letter C-34, Series 2002-2003 June 23, 2003, pp. 1 – 3.

Wessler, Stephen L., with Preble, William, The Respectful School: How Educators and Students Can Conquer Hate and Harassment; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003.

Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality: Free Press, 1979.

© Dr. Jo Ann Freiberg

Dr. Jo Ann Freiberg is an Educational Consultant with the Connecticut State Department of Education managing the wide arena of Bullying, Improving School Climate, and Character Education. You can visit Dr. Freiberg’s website or contact her via email at joann.freiberg@gmail.com.

Related links:

Podcast: “Bully” is a Four-Letter Word with Jo Ann Freiberg
No Kidding About Bullying with Naomi Drew

Bullying Checklist for Kids by Naomi Drew
“You Belong” poem by Naomi Drew
The Dignity Stance by Naomi Drew
Also: Bullying Laws: Your Child’s Rights at School

Appreciating Diversity
Are We Still Guilty of Gender Stereotyping? Survey

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