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Is bullying actually on the slide?
The numbers suggest it is diminishing, but that may be a product of what is reported and how

Ida Lieszkovszky
Erica Geisey on bullying: "They say, 'Don't let it bother you,' but it kinda does."
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It seems like bullying is in the news constantly these days, from documentaries focusing on the problem in schools to news reports of victims committing suicide or shooting their classmates. But is bullying really the epidemic some describe it to be? StateImpact Ohio’s Ida Lieszkovszky has this report.

LIESZKOVSZKY: The numbers says instances of bullying may actually be dropping

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When news of the shootings at Chardon High School in Northeast Ohio first broke this past spring, the immediate consensus was that the shooter must have been a victim retaliating. But, it’s not that simple. In this case it wasn’t bullying; it was mental illness.

And then there’s “Bully” the movie that includes the story of a victim who committed suicide. The American Suicide Prevention Foundation issued a release criticizing the film for assuming too strong a correlation between bullying and suicide, a relationship the foundation says hasn’t been supported by research.

Bullying definition isn't always clear 

It’s this sort of crying wolf, or in this case crying bully that worries Israel Kalman, a former school psychologist and founder of the Bullies 2 Buddies program. He says it’s not just the extreme behavior – like school shootings – that get labeled as bullying these days. More often it’s the little things on the other end of the spectrum.

“The current definition of bullying really boils down to all negative behavior. Anything that you do that can upset another person is bullying.”

The traditional definition of bullying comes with three check boxes: the victim is harmed, there is a power imbalance between the two parties, and it is a repetitive problem.

Bullying used to mean all three boxes were checked, but these days Kalman says just one of those components is enough for educators and parents to cry, “bully.”

“If you say something stupid and I roll my eyes, I’m bullying you and it’s now the teachers responsibility to make sure that children don’t roll their eyes.”

More talk may mean more action 

OK, maybe kids can still get away with eye rolling, but Kalman says it feels like bullying is an epidemic because people are talking about it more – not because it’s actually happening more. 

Kristyn Singleton agrees. She’s director of curriculum at John F. Kennedy Catholic School in Warren.

She says it’s not unusual for parents to come in to the school complaining of another student who dislikes their child, and demanding that the school do something about it.

“I think it’s always been present but I think that as a society we’ve become so politically correct and I think as parents we really take things to heart.”

But all that’s not to say bullying doesn’t happen. Amid all the misdiagnoses, bullying is still very much a problem in schools and haunts many students daily.

What schools usually do is punish the accused bully, but in the case of JFK Catholic, it switched to a different technique of encouraging kids to resolve their conflicts by being kind to classmates who are mean to them, you know, the “Golden Rule.”

Singelton says this year in particular there was a group of first-grade girls who’ve struggled with bullying. 

'It kinda does' hurt
Seven-year old Erica Giesey was a favorite target.

Erica: “They don’t like say mean words but they kinda say like, ‘I don’t like you’ and this and that.” 
Ida: “And what do you say back?” 
Erica: “I just say, ‘It’s OK.’” 

Geisey’s been taught to try to diffuse her bullies by joking with them and loving them -- if she can. It’s not easy.

 “I’m going to counseling and they say, ‘Don’t let it bother you’ but it kinda does.”

Geisey may never learn to love her bullies, and who can blame her? But she says things are getting better.

New policy and practice
In December, before the school changed its anti-bullying program from one that focuses on punishing bullies to one that tries to empower victims, there were seven bullying-related discipline referrals to the principal’s office. Since January, there have been two.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students nationwide who reported being afraid of an attack at school dropped from 12 percent in 1995 to 4 percent in 2009.

Christine Bhat, an assistant professor and bullying expert at Ohio University, doesn’t buy that data.

“Much of the bullying that happens through the use of technology or relational bullying does fly under the radar.”

Bhat says there may be fewer playground fights breaking out, but that’s doesn’t mean kids are nicer to each other - they’ve just moved those attacks online.

Bhat suggests the best way to cut down on bullying is to teach children when they’re young about what’s wrong, and what’s right, and that what’s wrong in person is just as wrong online. 

For WKSU's 2011 series on bullying, go to: 

Listener Comments:

Sorry, I'm back. As to the AFPS' absurd statement that there is no link between bullying and suicide, this is the FIRST link I found when I Googled "research on the relationship between bullying and suicide":
Please Note: This brief article suggests that the numbers you are using as to the reporting of bullying are very wide of the mark. As I mentioned in my first comment, there is probably research out there on the link between bullying and suicide and the AFPS hasn't bothered to make itself aware of that research. It has no business acting as an authority on bullying or suicide and should not be regarded as such.

Posted by: Philip M. Brett (United States) on June 22, 2012 12:06PM
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