08/20/2012 05:11 EDT | Updated 11/12/2012 02:15 EST

Are we Bullying the Bullies?


Recently, my four-year-old granddaughter told me that she did not want to play in the school yard on a Sunday afternoon. When I asked her why not, she told me she was afraid of bullies. Sounds like normal kid stuff until you realize that she had never before been in that particular school yard and, so far as any of our family is aware, has never been bullied. She has, however, like many children, had an introduction to Bullying 101. Are bullies the new boogeymen?

It is commendable that, as a society, we want to make it clear that no one should suffer persistent harassment and abuse, and that those who treat others in such a fashion will be met with an immediate and strong response. In our collective zeal to protect our children from harm, we have seen fit to institute a wide variety of anti-bullying curricula, programs, and in some jurisdictions, even legislation. But what else may be happening? While we want to ensure that the most vulnerable, and even the least popular, among us are protected from the kind of negative behaviours that many adults can recall vividly, we may be using our schools to bully the "bullies."

But what is bullying? And who do we identify as the bullies?

Linda Johnson, an educator in Calgary, tells the story this way: In a high school there are two boys in the same class. One boy is very popular, socially adept, and good looking. The other boy, who has a learning disability, is awkward, unpopular, and frequently in the office because of his inappropriate behavior. One afternoon, the first boy spies a popular and attractive girl from his math class at her locker. Her back is to him, so he sneaks up behind her and snaps her bra strap. She turns, prepared to be angry, but when she sees who the perpetrator is, she smiles and giggles.

Observing this interaction is the second boy. At the same time, he also sees a girl from his math class who he finds to be attractive. She too, is standing at her locker with her back to him. Having seen that the first boy succeeded in getting positive attention from a girl, the second boy approaches his target from behind and snaps her bra strap. Much to his horror, the second girl turns around, screams and runs to tell a teacher. To no one's surprise, the second boy is brought to the office, yet again accused of bullying and disciplined in a way that once again excludes him from interacting with his classmates.

As a society, we need to work toward ending bullying. Bullying is well known to have a profoundly negative effect on its victims and targets and has been linked to mental health problems and even to suicides. But it is important to clarify the questions -- what is bullying and who can be defined as a bully?

Recent Ontario legislation has defined bullying to be:

"aggressive and typically repeated behavior by a pupil where the pupil ought to know that the behavior will have the effect of causing harm, fear or distress to another individual, including physical, psychological, social or academic harm, or harm to the individual's reputation."

Another definition of bullying includes all of the above plus:

"The behavior occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance between the pupil and the individual based on factors such as size, strength, age, intelligence, peer group power, economic status, social status, religion... or the receipt of special education ("intimidation")."

If we replace "pupil" with "school authority," does it cease to be bullying? We know from numbers of reports on school discipline that if the second boy comes from a racialized community, or has a disability, he and those like him are over-represented in the disciplinary system. Could the second boy in our story be seen as the victim of a system that allows him to suffer fear and distress, social, academic harm, or harm to his reputation?

The first boy may have engaged in his behaviour repeatedly, but, so far, it hasn't been reported. The second boy's behavior has resulted in numbers of reports by other students and teachers. The first boy has not been disciplined -- in fact we could say he has been rewarded with positive attention from the first girl. The second boy, if our story is true to form, continues to be the recipient of various kinds of discipline. He has been excluded from group events or settings, has a reputation as a trouble-maker, and is likely afraid of further contact with school authorities: He now suffers fear, social and academic harm and harm to his reputation.

When my four-year-old granddaughter worries about bullies, I want to make sure that she is safe from all harm. But when the tough little boy in her daycare is told that expressing himself loudly or aggressively is bullying and he is once again sent away from the group, I am very worried that, at four, he may be set up to become the second boy in our story. Being stigmatized as a bully isn't teaching him any social skills -- and may create a reputation that will follow him for a long time to come.