Bullying in American Schools

Girl being bullied at school. Public Domain- https://www.publicnewsservice.org/2013-03-04/childrens-issues/new-study-bullying-lasts-a-lifetime/a31114-1

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bullying as “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger or more powerful.” Furthermore, it can be “prone to or characterized by overbearing mistreatment and domination of others.” The Encyclopedia Britannica defines bullying as “intentional harm-doing or harassment that is directed toward vulnerable targets and typically repeated. Bullying encompasses a wide range of malicious aggressive behaviours, including physical violence, verbal mockery, threats, ostracism, and rumours spread either orally or by other means of communication, such as the Internet.”

Dan Olweus (A Norwegian researcher and psychologist) argues that “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” However some scholars challenge Olweus’ definition because a single act of violence or verbal abuse can cause considerable damage to a person, especially a child going through various stages of development. So therefore, some scholars argue that the incident does not necessarily have to be a repeated behavior in order for it to be bullying. They also go on to argue that “additionally, not all people engaged in this interaction can be categorized as pure bullies or pure victims; research has distinguished a third category of “bully-victims,” that is, young people who are both the bully and the victim. As a result, the website stopbullying.com defines school bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time… In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include an imbalance of power. Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.”

The first known use of the term bully was in 1742 according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Therefore, the idea of bullying has been around for some time. It seems to primarily be associated with schools. In the 1970’s Olweus did significant research in Europe on bullying. Furthermore, the suicide of several victims in 1983 brought even more attention to the subject. In the 1990’s, due to increased school shootings and more suicides related to bullying, much media attention was given to the subject matter.  

There has long been a culture in the US to blame individuals that are being bullied as being a part of the problem. That is, it is thought that the victims’ actions or existence somehow warrant or justify their being bullied. For example, in many late twentieth century films an awkward student that excels in academics but is not good in sports is often targeted, becoming a victim of school bullies. The idea is that if the victim would somehow adopt more socially acceptable behaviors and become more “cool” they would no longer be the recipient of the violence or teasing. Many schools today tend to be a breeding ground for bullying. This culture has taken on a sinister turn, as many of the school shootings have been directly connected to bullying. That is, some of the school shooters have retaliated against their oppressors by resorting to violent resolutions. On the other hand, some of the shooters have been actual bullies themselves. Perhaps they fit the category we have mentioned earlier “bully-victims.” The Encyclopedia Britannica also points out that “A U.S. national study published at the turn of the 21st century documented that bullying and other forms of aggression affected approximately 30 percent, or 5.7 million, middle- to high-school students in the then-current school term.”

In contemporary times bullying has become a hot button issue in the US because of the increase of school shootings and suicides that seem to be directly connected to the phenomenon. Fortunately, many schools and classrooms have adopted anti-bully curriculum, that is often implemented throughout the entire campus. The resources below were identified for educators, to assist them in creating sophisticated and meaningful curricula surrounding bullying.

Curriculum/Lesson Plans

There Are No Bullies Just Children Who Bully—And You Can Help Them

National Bully Prevention Center

30-60 Minute Lesson Plan: Middle and High School, Introduction to Dynamics of Bullying

Week Long Curriculum: Middle and High School, Starting the Discussion Toolkit

Evidence-Based Bullying Programs, Curricula and Practices

Bullying Prevention Program

Violence Prevention Works: Safer Schools, Safer Communities

Open Circle: Getting to the Heart of Learning

PeaceBuilders® Creating Safe, Positive Learning Environments

Safe Schools Ambassador Program

Teaching Students to Prevent Bullying- NEA

Embedding Bully Prevention in Core Curriculum

Bullying Prevention Unit: The Power to Create a Positive School Environment

Safe School

Bully Prevention in Positive Behavior

Middle School Bully- Lesson Plans


“Bully” Award Winning Documentary

Too Scared For School (Bullying Documentary) – Real Stories (British Documentary)

Minnesota Nice? – A Documentary On Bullying And Suicide In Minnesota Schools

The Bully Effect | Stop Bullying: Speak Up | Cartoon Network


Bullying defined

Bullying- Encyclopedia Britannica

Bullying- Wikipedia

What is Bullying- Stop Bullying.gov

Dealing with Bullying

Bullying- Psychology Today

Stomp Out Bullying: Change the Culture

Bullying Facts, Statistics, Prevention and Effects

Discussion Questions

1. What are resources from above that might be most helpful to you?
2. Were you ever a victim of bullying in your own schooling experience? How was it handled, if at all?
3. What did you learn from your experience with bullying?
4. As a teacher have you witnessed bullying in your school? How has your school handled it?
5. What are strategies you have implemented to curtail bullying?
6. Do you think bullying is handled properly in US schools? Is it taken seriously enough? Why or why not?


  1. I cannot speak on the prevalence of bullying in American schools today, but when I was in elementary and middle school, bullying ran rampant. I do not agree with Dan Olweus when he defines bullying as repeated abuse. I think that one single occurrence can act as bullying. Having the standard for bullying to be repeated abuse is very dangerous, as even one occurrence of abuse can be extremely detrimental to a child’s mental and physical health. Reframing the definition of bullying to allow it to include single instances will let schools be more strict in their punishment of bullying and also allow students to come forward when they have experienced bullying one time and not twenty. Bullying is extremely traumatic, especially for adolescents who have self-esteem issues and do not know how to respond to their emotions. Bullying should never bet taken lightly.

  2. I was bullied from First grade, yes first grade, all the way up through sixth grade until I got to the point where I wasn’t doing my homework and I kept getting detentions and by my second suspension I was pulled out of school. I did online learning for a few years until my family moved to Kentucky my eighth grade year. It was that year, I had to write an essay stating whether I thought that if everyone wore a school uniform there would be not as much bullying. Considering I came from a Private school, I did have to wear uniform and I looked like everyone else, but I was always kicked out of groups. Even if you fall in with the crowd, there is still a chance of getting bullied. Don’t be the bystander, step in and be the friend. I don’t think that teachers know exactly how to handle bullying, but neither does anyone else. If having uniform schools wont work, then is it an issue that we can completely get rid of?

  3. this article was very helpful to me and i am happy to know that it is here for people so that they can be better informed on the matter. it can be hard at times to know when to intervene and stop something before it starts. going into the teaching profession this article really gives me an insight on things that I had not know before. this can be a very serious topic and it important to be knowledgeable on the matter and this article helps you get to the point when you are aware of the situation and have and idea on how to solve it

  4. this article is really insightful because this is something that people deal with all the time. Seeing that I am going into the teaching profession it is important to know what bullying can be and how it can affect people. It also important to know how to handle it. it hard to tell at times what can be considered bulling a person and when it is right to intervene. this article is really helpful to teachers so they have a better understanding and I am glade to know that it is here for people to better informed

  5. I am inclined to agree that there is a problem with “bullying” within schools. For whatever reason, children are mean. However, I have a problem with the stopbullying.com definition which mentions “a real or perceived power imbalance.” This is very subjective. What is to stop a child from using this definition to do harm to another? Children, as they grow and develop, seem to find ways to get out of trouble or get out of responsibilities. What is to say they couldn’t just say “It seems like I’m being bullied.” Adults want to protect children, and considering we are a society that loves retribution, there is a possibility that a child could be wrongly accused of bullying. The implications of this on an innocent child can be as detrimental as the bullying itself.
    To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to end bullying. I am only saying we need to avoid knee-jerk reactions when dealing with accusations. Get all the information then address the problem.

  6. I really enjoyed this article and the way that it presented the topic of bullying. I found that the information presented to be both easy to read and very informative, and it was presented in a very formal way. When I was in high school I was a victim of bullying I felt like no one around me liked or even cared about me. I am very glad to see that the issue is being taken seriously. It also makes me happy that there are resources provided to help educators learn about and even help solve this very series issue. It is nice to know that schools are taking steps to solve this very serious problem.

  7. Dr. Childs has provided a lot of good information regarding bullying in this article including the References and Documentaries. I would definitely be interested in watching the documentary title “Bully” since it has won an award(s). When I was in middle school, I would have to wait at the bus stop by myself as I was the only child in the neighborhood. Sometimes, this mean little boy that lived a few blocks away would come to my bus stop if he missed his scheduled pick up. He often verbally bullied/abused me calling me “fat” and I was a chubby little girl but growing up in the 1970’s, I didn’t know what bullying meant. I never told anyone. One day, during the winter, he threw a snowball at me, which had a rock inside of it. Clocked me between the eyes and made me bleed. I went to school anyways and never told. I remember being called fat many times growing up but I never went to my parents or school authorities about it; I guess I just thought it was okay since it was true. I do think that the issue of bullying has become more prominent over the past decade as Dr. Childs points out and I would hope that the schools and parents are addressing the issue appropriately. I don’t have any children myself, so have not really engaged in what is or isn’t been done in the school system regarding this issue. A couple of weeks ago, my 6-year-old nephew cut his hair; when asked why he did such a thing, he said that the kids at school told him his hair was funny looking. I thought to myself, please don’t tell me that a 6-year-old is being bullied. Hopefully for the sake of our kids, our society, this malicious act (bullying) will be stopped.

  8. Bullying is a very important issue in today’s school culture, while also being a difficult problem to address. While I never personally experienced much bullying while I was in middle and high school, I have observed it happen to other people. Sometimes the bully doesn’t know he/she is being a bully (rough, physical behavior can sometimes be misinterpreted as a threat, particularly with larger children). In these cases, the child should be pulled aside, and told what constitutes acceptable behavior and what doesn’t. However, there are also occasions where the child is very clearly attempting to embarrass or humiliate other children, which is unacceptable behavior. At this point, significant disciplinary action should be taken – simply suspending them for a few days likely won’t solve anything.

    Children need to be made aware of how their actions affect other people – serious bullying can cause the victims to turn to suicide, or may cause them to inflict harm on other people to take out their anger (school shootings). This applies to social media bullying as well as physical bullying – with the introduction of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, you don’t even need to be in the same room as another student in order to bully them.

    While bullying tends to be rampant in today’s school environment, schools seem to be implementing strict anti-bullying rules, and giving teachers tools to help inform their students about the dangers and side effects of bullying. Hopefully, the problem will be at least partially resolved for future generations of children.

  9. When I was in middle school I was bullied and not lightly. I was in the 8th grade, and it was a group of girls I was bullied by and I once called them my best friends. We all had science together and we would eat lunch together and I thought everything was great. One day these group of girls that I thought were my friends began to turn against me. They ignored me, in class they would say hurtful things and it let to one girl eventually shoving me into a pile of desks asking why I began spreading rumors about her. I most definitely was not doing that, and this girl was a bit heavier and I was a tiny thing so I had no way to even defend myself. Luckily a teacher saw it and she was sent to the principle. She got a slap on the wrist and was just pulled out of the class I had with her for a couple days. All the trauma I went through with this group of girls has led me to suffer from anxiety and depression and now I have to live with this everyday. It came down to my mom having to pull me out of the class and I had to switch a couple classes around so I was not around these girls.
    Do I think bullying is handled properly in schools? Most absolutely not. The girl trying to fight me got a slap on the wrist. One of the girls that bullied me had gotten bullied in high school and she committed suicide. That could have been me, but I didn’t go that far. What did the school do after the suicide of this girl? Nothing, nothing happened. There needs to be rules made in schools about bullying and actions need to be taken. This is not a topic that I take lightly.

  10. Bullying is something that is seen everyday in schools. From what I have seen most schools are finally taking a step in the right direction to add more rules and punishments for bullies. They are also starting to talk more about it with students which I think helps the ones who are being bullied feel more comfortable to talk about their experiences and get help if they need it. Bullying does not just happen to the weak and unpopular anymore and it also doesn’t just stay within schools walls. The popularity of social media has made bullying a lot worse than it worse a couple of years ago.

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