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The Only Way to Prevent Illegitimate Bullying Complaints

There is simply no other way to stop the waste of precious time and resources

New Jersey anti-bullying law

State legislatures have eagerly passed tough anti-bullying laws in the naïve expectation that they will eliminate bullying from schools. Instead, they discover that the tougher the law, the worse the situation becomes for their schools. I have been warning for years that these laws are counterproductive and will only cause an escalation of the problem. But here I want to offer the educational world the solution to one of the inevitable unwanted byproducts of anti-bullying laws: the tremendous escalation in bullying complaints.

Schools are now required by law to investigate and file reports on every bullying complaint. For failing to do so, they can be sued. Unfortunately, the investigation and reporting process not only squanders schools’ limited financial and manpower resources, it also escalates hostilities. Professionals who conduct the process have informed me that it takes them at least six hours, as they need to meet with each child individually, with their teachers, with students who may have been witnesses, and with the parents of the children involved. Then they must write up their findings and report them to the district. If the process doesn’t go smoothly, it can take much longer than six hours.

It wouldn’t be so bad if complying with the law solved the bullying problem. But it usually creates a bigger one. Picture this: we’re kids in school and I complain that you bullied me, and the school subjects you to the investigation process. Are you going to admit your guilt? Are you and your parents going to like me better? Are you and your parents going to like the school authorities? Of course not. You and your parents will try to justify you and blame me. You and your parents are going to be angry with me, with my parents and with the school as well. If either my family or yours is not satisfied with the results, we may decide to sue the school.

As a result of the investigation process, the school is likely to determine that the event was not really bullying. School districts typically determine that around 75% of bullying complaints do not fit the criteria of bullying. Of course the determination improves nothing for the parties involved, but at least the school is now off the hook.

It would save schools lots of time, money and aggravation if students and parents stopped making false bullying reports. How can this happen? In my opinion, the best way is to throw out the entire bullying field, which is fundamentally flawed and has created a world-wide problem out of bullying.

Short of getting rid of the bullying field altogether, if we wish to prevent illegitimate complaints, it is necessary to understand why they are being made in the first place. After all, we can’t assume that so many kids and their parents are stupid and don’t know what bullying is. They have been educated about bullying for years.

The unwarranted reporting is not the fault of the schools or the state legislatures. It is the fault of the experts who have defined bullying. The following is the universally accepted modern definition of bullying created by the academic experts and adopted by the laws: A scholarly article, State Laws and Policies to Address Bullying in Schools, School Psychology Review, 2003, Volume 32, No. 3, pp. 445-455, states:

"Among researchers, bullying is commonly understood as aggressive behavior that: (a) is intended to cause distress or harm, (b) exists in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power or strength, and (c) is repeated over time (Limber, 2002); Nansen et. al., 2001, Olweus, 1993)."

This part of the definition is what can be called the theoretical definition. It refers to behavior intentionally and repeatedly committed by someone with greater power to inflict pain and misery on someone weaker.

Then the article goes on to elaborate that:

"Bullying may involve physical action, words, gestures, or social isolation. Although bullying may involve direct, relatively open attacks against a victim, bullying frequently is indirect, or subtle, in nature (spreading rumors, enlisting a friend to assault a child; Limber, 2002; Olweus, 1993; Rigby, 1996)."

This is what can be seen as the practical definition. It consists of any behavior that someone else would not like done to them: insults, rumors, unwanted criticism, exclusion from a group, gossip, eye-rolling, collisions in the hallway.

In other words, any behavior that can upset anyone is bullying. In fact, Prof. Dan Olweus, the creator of the modern field of bullying, says in his authoritative book, Bullying in School, that even “refusing to comply with someone’s wishes” is bullying. This means that if I try to pressure you to do something against your will I am bullying you, but if you refuse to do what I want, you are bullying me!

The practical definition of bullying includes behaviors that we all occasionally commit. New York State perhaps exemplifies this best. Its anti-bullying law is called “The Dignity for All Students Act.” It declares that children are entitled to go to school without anyone disrespecting them for any reason. Who among us would not be found guilty of bullying?

And this brings us to why so many bullying complaints are determined by school investigations to not be bullying. Children and their parents are taught the practical definition of bullying. So they report to the school whenever another kid upsets them.

The school then proceeds to conduct an investigation, but applies the theoretical definition of bullying. Thus it almost always determines that the negative action either wasn’t sufficiently intentional and/or repetitive, or that the victim was not weaker than the alleged bully, or that it occurred within the context of “a conflict.” The victimized children and their parents are unhappy with this determination, but at least the school can claim that it hadn’t failed to prevent the bullying because the incident wasn’t really bullying.

We can’t blame children, their parents or the schools for the confounding situation that leads to so many bullying false alarms. They are only doing what they learned from the world’s leading bullying experts.

But if we want to prevent false alarms, it is counterproductive to only inform students and parents that the school will not tolerate any bullying. It is also necessary to inform them about the behaviors that the school will tolerate because they do not constitute bullying.

Therefore, I suggest that anti-bullying laws and policies clearly include the following:

The following do not constitute bullying and are permissible under the anti-bullying law:

Kids are allowed to insult your children (including, but not limited to, for their appearance, intelligence, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic, whether actual or perceived), to spread rumors about them, to exclude them from groups, to hit them, to write something negative about them, to make demeaning gestures, or to upset them in any way, as long as it is done sporadically (not pervasively).

Kids are allowed to do the above behaviors to your children as long as they are not intending to hurt them (meaning, they are committed accidentally, or without awareness that the behavior is hurtful, or with intention of just fooling around with your children).

Kids are allowed to do the above behaviors to your children as long as they are not superior in power to your children (meaning, they are either equal to or weaker than your child in physical strength, and/or equal or lower in intelligence, and/or equal or lower in social/emotional development).

Kids are allowed to do the above behaviors to your children as long as they are within the context of a conflict (conflicts are not bullying). For example, they are competing over a seat at a lunch table, or they are fighting over the same romantic interest, or they are on opposing sides in school elections, or an altercation breaks out in gym, or they used to be friends with your child but then became enemies.

The law forbids bullying behavior, not victim behavior. Thus, kids are allowed to do the above behaviors to your children if they feel victimized by them. This includes any behavior committed because they are angry with your child, hate your child, or are getting revenge against your child. (Anger, hate, and the desire for revenge only arise from the feeling of being victimized.)

Forgive me for bringing you this bad news, but it is impossible to reduce bullying complaints without publicizing such information. Frankly, I can’t see any school or legislative body daring to take such a step. However, as long as they don’t, they will continue to be plagued with an endless flood of bullying complaints.

******************For anyone who wants a free and effective solution to bullying, please access the free manuals on my website:

I also recommend that schools and districts consider my Proposal for a Rational Moral School Bullying Policy Based on the Golden Rule:…

Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.

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