Bullying Backgrounder

Thank you to Shaheen Shariff, PhD for providing this backgrounder for teachers.

Bullying is various forms of harassment. It can be physical or psychological, overt or covert, random (indiscriminate) or discriminatory. Educators and students who may witness, be bulliers or victims may not recognize bullying for what it is. This is especially true when bullying occurs on playgrounds and in hallways, away from the watchful eyes of teachers, school administrators, and other supervisors. High profile incidents and recent prominent cases have brought to public attention the harm that bullying causes to the people involved and the school environment. If schools are to keep students safe and avoid litigation, the first step is to learn how to recognize various forms of bullying and the conditions under which it can be identified as bullying rather than the innocent child’s play it has been called in the past.

Conditions for Bullying

Bullying involves varying degrees of violence that can be categorized into two primary types: physical and psychological. Within these primary categories, bullying entails overt or covert behaviour and takes verbal or physical forms. It is necessary to identify conditions common to both forms. Good-natured horseplay and teasing escalate into bullying when victim(s) and perpetrator(s) cease to agree when the behaviour should stop. At this point, a power imbalance is created between those who continue the unwanted behaviour and individuals at the receiving end. The following are the general conditions present in a case of bullying:

  1. There is always a power imbalance that favours the perpetrator(s) over the victim.
  2. Bullies are often supported by a group of peers, some of whom actively encourage the bully and others who watch but do nothing to help the victim.
  3. Victims draw the negative attention of their peers and are actively pushed out of the group and isolated.
  4. Exclusion and isolation from the larger peer group fortifies the power of the perpetrator(s).
  5. The perpetrator(s)’ behaviour is uninvited and unwanted by the victim.
  6. The behaviour imposed on the victim is deliberate, repeated and often relentless.
  7. Two types of children are at risk of victimization: aggressive children and passively withdrawn children.
  8. Bullying is often discriminatory, based on variables such as victim gender, sexual orientation, race, age, social class, disability or ability but it can also be random depending upon how the victim is identified.

In bullying, the primary objective of the perpetrator is isolation and exclusion of the victim. The perpetrator’s actions draw the support of the larger peer group, increasing vulnerability of the victim. Not all the members of the group are active participants; however a frightening discovery about group bullying is that a greater number of peers (an average of 30%) support individual perpetrators rather than help the victim.

Despite the prior belief that bullies are usually unpopular outcasts, recent studies have found that perpetrators often exhibit high levels of leadership and confidence, and are popular with peers and teachers. The popularity of perpetrators may serve to further isolate victims.

Types of Bullying

Physical Bullying

There are disturbingly real examples of the kinds of activities students engage in to enforce a power relationship, which results in victims feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Physical bullying can include physical assault and harassment that includes beating, punching, shoving, locking peers in school lockers, burning clothes (setting on fire), burning flesh with cigarettes, strangling, kicking, stomping on the victim, drowning, knifing, shooting (with a gun), using weapons or objects to cause physical harm to the body of the person. When the victim is not an equal participant in activities and overwhelmed by relentless physical assaults despite repeated requests to stop, the line from friendly horseplay crosses over to bullying.

In many cases, a single perpetrator carries out the physical beating against one victim. But findings show that bullying also occurs in a social context where peers stand by and watch with few bystanders willing to intervene to protect the victim.

Psychological Bullying

Psychological bullying largely entails the infliction of mental anguish that causes victims to fear for their physical safety, or is directed towards breaking down the victim’s self-esteem and confidence. Again, at least three or more of the characteristics of bullying are always present. The harassment is unwanted and uninvited, it is relentless, and the victim is singled out for the abuse. Verbal psychological bullying is "overt" in the sense that joking and insults can be heard by witnesses and substantiated by victims.

Verbal psychological bullying involves repeated derogatory insults at the victim’s expense, teasing, verbal harassment and jokes and insults. For example, a boy might be called a "loser" because he does not have a girlfriend, cannot afford clothes that will help him conform to the "cool" crowd, or because of his physical appearance. He may be called "cry baby" if the pressure from the bullying gets to him and "four eyes" or "geek" or "dork" if he wears glasses.

Victims of Bullying

Victims often present a similar set of characteristics. They may be the smallest child in the group, be very shy or socially awkward. They may be physically unattractive or have poor hygiene or simply engage in some habit that attracts negative attention or their peers find annoying. There are other targets of bullying that can be categorized as follows:

 Who Bullies

While bullying takes place in elementary school and has detrimental effects on young children, participation in bullying behaviours increases around puberty for both sexes, at greater levels for boys. Neglect and abuse, lack of nutrition or parental substance abuse during pregnancy can result in chronic behaviour problems throughout children’s lives. These biological factors are also exacerbated by environmental influences. The fact that boys and girls are socialized differently plays out in the forms of bullying they engage in. Males tend to engage in aggressive physical bullying, sexual harassment and homophobic bullying – all of which relate to their early socialization to maintain tough exteriors and prove their manhood. Girls are socialized to rely on their verbal skills and they tend to engage in verbal bullying as well as covert psychological bullying such as exclusion, staring, manipulation and so on.

Peer observers and bystanders also play a role in bullying. Six distinct participant roles that children take on in bully/victim situations have been identified by researchers: bully, victim, assistant (joins the bully), re-enforcer (encourages the bully by observing and laughing), defender (assists the victim by siding with him or her or trying to stop others), and outsiders (students generally removed from, unaware of the bullying, or who avoid such situations by staying away).

Impact of Bullying

The tragic consequences of extreme bullying, as witnessed in cases involving suicide and murder, are well known. The impact of bullying on children in the normal course of school life is not as well recognized but can also be devastating. Mental anguish from social exclusion and an unrelenting combination of physical and psychological bullying is sufficient to destroy the confidence of any adult, let alone a child learning how to mature as a social being. It can have a destructive impact on the rest of their lives. Persistent bullying wears down the confidence of victims and can deplete their enthusiasm to attend school.

Victimized children experience school-related difficulties, including school avoidance and poorer school functioning. Bullying and bystander support for perpetrators have serious consequences for students from marginalized groups. For example, immigrants or refugees, many of who may have already been through post-traumatic stress in war-torn countries, may be less likely to complain to authorities. Possible reasons for keeping quiet are because they are new to the school system, because they do not speak English well and/or because they are too shy to build a rapport with their teachers. Moreover, it has also been found that children with disabilities who are generally excluded from a wide range of mainstream activities may experience severe loneliness upon further ostracism through bullying.

Girls who are sexually propositioned and mocked during class can be distracted and earn lower grades, skip or drop classes, be forced to switch schools or with draw from school altogether. Isolation, reduced school performance and related depression felt by gay and lesbian students, and heterosexual children of same-sex parents have been observed.

The consequences of most physical bullying are easily recognized through visible external injuries to victims. It is not difficult for teachers to see that a student has bruises, black eyes, scratches, broken bones, nose or teeth, and so on. Internal injuries however, are more difficult to notice or detect. They are also more easily dismissed as whining or unfounded complaints until victims exhibit external signs that make it clear they are in pain.

Legal Duty to Protect

Obviously, those students who engage in the bullying of others may be subject to criminal charges such as uttering threats, or assault and, if convicted, subject to various penalties under the Criminal Code.

However, it is also important to identify the extent and circumstances under which educators may be held liable if they are unable to keep students physically and/or psychologically safe from peer abuse. Can schools be held liable for failing to proactively educate children to be socially responsible, or for failing to foster school environments that are free from discrimination?

Two sources of civil law are relevant to such an analysis (as opposed to the criminal law system). In civil cases, the courts award the plaintiff a monetary amount to compensate the plaintiff for the damages that he or she suffered (such as the cost of replacing a vehicle damaged in a motor vehicle accident or an amount of money to compensate the plaintiff for pain and suffering).

The first avenue is the law of torts and, more specifically, negligence. Under tort law, schools have a legal "duty of care" to students in a compulsory public school system to provide a safe environment and Canadian courts have found teachers and school boards liable where students were injured during sports activities. Accordingly, if a teacher (and the administration of a school) is aware that a particular student engages in bullying behaviour and poses a threat to other students, the teacher (and the administration of the school) may be found liable in negligence if steps are not taken protect the other students from the bully and the bully causes harm to the other students. However, no Canadian courts have yet considered this situation in a torts case.

The second area of law applicable to the situation of bullying in a school environment is human rights law. In Canada, human rights are governed by provincial legislation (in British Columbia, the Human Rights Act) and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a component of the Canadian Constitution. Human rights legislation provides that certain services, such as education and schooling in a public system, must be provided free from discrimination based on such things as race, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The human rights regime provides some monetary compensation to the complainant and remediation of the discriminatory practice (for example, a change in the discriminatory policy). Accordingly, a school board may be liable under human rights legislation if it allows a bullying situation where the bullying is based on the complainant’s race or sexual orientation.

Schools need to find approaches that work best within their own school environment. No single anti-bullying program is the perfect solution for all schools or all children. Clearly, the most thoughtful, ethical, educational and legally-defensible option is to ensure that educators are informed and knowledgeable about the legal standards expected of them, and that they model respect, tolerance and civic virtue in every aspect of the curriculum and school life.