Is it Bullying or Conflict and Does it Matter?

Is it bullying or is it conflict?

By Tamara Uselman, Supt. of Schools

Is it bullying or is it student conflict? Does it matter? In a word, yes. The difference between student conflict and student bullying is similar to the difference between speeding and reckless driving. Both require investigation; sanctions will differ. Whereas student conflict often includes sharp disagreement between two or more, bullying is defined in policy and NDCC to be conduct (which includes the use of technology or other electronic media)

  • so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student’s educational opportunities;
  • Places the student in actual and reasonable fear of harm;
  • Places the student in actual and reasonable fear of damage to property of the student;
  • Substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a public school

For the school to act on bullying, the action must occur or be received by a student while he/she is in a public school, on school district premises, in a district owned or leased school bus or school vehicle, or at any public school or school district sanctioned or sponsored activity. In short, conflict between students is a normal part of school life. Bullying is not.

If the report of bullying involves a student of a “protected class”, the issue is investigated in accordance with the district’s anti-harassment / discrimination policy. Protected classes are protected from discrimination by state and federal law and include characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability (physical or mental), and status with regard to marriage or public assistance. Both bullying and harassment /discrimination must be referred to law enforcement if there is evidence of a crime. Protected class individuals may seek redress in the court system as well.

You might be surprised to learn that while the term “bullying” is used in a fast and loose manner when there is an issue of student conflict, most principals and School Resource Officers (SROs) find very few incidents rise to the level of bullying or harassment. Often what is occurring is two students who are just not getting along. School staff assist in student conflict issues differently than with bullying, much like speeding is dealt with differently than reckless driving. In issues of conflict, staff assist with conflict resolution.

At BPS, we find much of physical bullying has gone by the wayside and cyberbullying has taken its place. Sometimes two students have an argument when texting back and forth, for example. That’s conflict. However, it can rapidly get out of control if one person chooses to take to social media to spread lies or inappropriate photographs about the other person and if adults jump without facts. Many of the bullying incidents school administrators and SROs investigate these days are cyber in nature.

Please know that whether an issue is one of student conflict or one of bullying, BPS is committed to protecting the children in our care. But know as well bullying is not solely a school matter. Schools and parents share a joint responsibility with the larger community to set and live a standard of expected behavior. In the goal of partnering wisely, Bismarck Public Schools has convened a task force to study bullying and make recommendations about curriculum, policy, and parent education.

There is potential for public forums this spring, similar to the sessions held to educate parents on sexting, to share out information on responses to student conflict, bullying, and harassment / discrimination.  Together we can teach students the life skills of self-regulation, conflict resolution, and how to be upstanders rather than by standers when it comes to extremely harmful actions like bullying.

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