John Leo
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Now we have a big national study on bullying, and the problem with it is right there in the first paragraph: Bullying behavior may be "verbal (e.g., name-calling, threats), physical (e.g., hitting) or psychological (e.g., rumors, shunning-exclusion)."

Uh-oh. The study may or may not have put bullying on the map as a major national issue. But it rather clearly used a dubious tactic: taking a lot of harmless and minor things ordinary children do and turning them into examples of bullying. Calling somebody a jerk and spreading rumors counted as bullying in the study. Repeated teasing counted, too. You achieved bully status if you didn't let the class creep into your game of catch, or if you just stayed away from people you didn't like (shunning, exclusion).

With a definition like that, the total number of children involved in either bullying or being bullied themselves ought to be around 100 percent. But no, the bullying study says only 29.9 percent of the students studied reported frequent or moderate involvement -- and that total was arrived at by lumping bullies and their victims together in the statistics.

The low numbers and highly debatable definitions undercut the study's conclusion that bullying is "a serious problem for U.S. youth." Of the 29.9 percent figure, 13 percent were bullies, 10.6 percent were targets of bullying, and 6.3 percent were both perpetrators and victims. The study, done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is based on 15,686 questionaires filled out by students in grades 6 through 10 in public and private schools around the country.

We have seen this statistical blending of serious and trivial incidents before. The American Association of University Women produced a 1993 report showing that 80 percent of American students have been sexually harassed, including a hard-to-believe 76 percent of all boys. The AAUW got the numbers up that high by including glances, gestures, gossip and naughty jokes. The elastic definition encouraged schools and courts to view many previously uncontroversial kinds of expression as sexual harassment. Before long, schools were making solemn lists of harassing behaviors that included winking and calling someone "honey."

Another set of broad definitions appeared when zero-tolerance policies descended on the schools. Anti-drug rules were extended to cover aspirin. Anti-weapons regulations covered a rubber knife used in a school play. Just two months ago a third-grader in Monroe, La., was suspended for drawing a picture of G.I. Joe. Now the anti-bullying movement is poised to provide a third source of dubious hyper-regulation of the young. One anti-bullying specialist says "hard looks" and "stare-downs" -- everyday activities for millions of hormone-driven adolescent boys -- should be punishable offenses under student codes.

This has all the makings of an anti-bullying crusade, with many of the same wretched excesses of the zero-tolerance and anti-harassment campaigns. Serious bullying can be ugly. Parents and schools should stop it and punish offenders. And schools should do whatever they can to create a culture of civility and tolerance. But rumors and dirty looks and getting along with horrible classmates are all part of growing up. So are the teen-age tendencies to form cliques and snub people now and then. Adults shouldn't faint when they see this behavior, or try to turn it into quasi-criminal activity.

Another pitfall: In focusing on gossip, rumors and verbal offenses, the crusade has the obvious potential to infringe free speech at schools. Will comments like "I think Catholicism is wrong" or "I think homosexuality is a sin" be turned into anti-bullying offenses? The crusade could also demonize those who bully instead of helping them change. Some of the anti-bully literature circulating in Europe is hateful stuff. One screed calls "the serial bully" glib, shallow, evasive, incapable of intimacy, and a practiced liar who "displays a seemingly limitless demonic energy." Yet a lot of the academic literature reports that bullies often aren't very psychologically different from their victims. And the national study says a fifth of bullying victims are bullies themselves.

The example of Europe's more advanced anti-bullying crusade should make Americans cautious. The European campaign has expanded from schools into the adult world and the workplace. Several nations are considering anti-bullying laws, including Britain. Definitions are expanding, too. A proposed anti-bullying law in Portugal would make it illegal to harass workers by giving them tasks for which they are overqualified. Deliberately giving employees erroneous information would also count as bullying.

Ireland's anti-bullying task force came up with a scarily vague definition of bullying: "repeated inappropriate behavior, direct or indirect" that could "reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual's right to dignity at work." Imagine what the American litigation industry could do with wording like that. It's time to stop and ask, Where is our anti-bullying campaign going?

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John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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