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Ashley C. Rondini, ASA Congressional Fellow
Concern regarding the consequences of "bullying" in schools is not new. The Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools issued statements regarding the harmful impact of bullying as early as 2001. However, recent mainstream media focus on the suicides of several young people who were victimized by "bullying" at the hands of their peers has resulted in an unprecedented degree of public discourse on the subject.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has developed a "Stop Bullying Now" Campaign, which includes online resources for students, parents, and educators. The HHS literature describes bullying as "verbal or physical harassment that occurs repeatedly over time, that is intended to cause harm, and that involves an imbalance of power between the child who bullies and the child who is bullied." Similarly, in his keynote address at the Department of Education’s (DOE) first-ever "Bullying Summit," held in August of this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized "bullying" in the following way:
"Bullying is deliberate. The bully wants to hurt someone. Bullying is usually repeated, with the bully targeting the same victim again and again—and the bully takes advantage of an imbalance of power by picking victims that he or she perceives are vulnerable."
For many of the young people whose experiences of being bullied led to suicide, the vulnerability for which they were repeatedly targeted was not perceived arbitrarily. Rather, the power imbalances characterizing these peer group interactions often reflected broader socio-political dynamics of hetero-normative privilege and oppression.
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities, chaired by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), has convened two congressional hearings addressing bullying issues during the 110th Congress. The first, in July of 2009, titled "Strengthening School Safety through the Prevention of Bullying," highlighted the dangers of bullying for children’s health and safety and urged educational institutions to better respond to these incidents. The subsequent hearing, "Ensuring Student Cyber Safety," in June of 2010, emphasized the unique potential for harm constituted by the use of social networking and electronic communication technologies to bully, harass, threaten, and humiliate targeted individuals in ways that can become highly visible and widely distributed almost instantaneously. Earlier this year, Congresswoman McCarthy introduced the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act to call for increased institutional accountability and more consistent reporting regarding bullying in schools. If passed, the SAVE Act would legally define bullying and cyber-bullying in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the first time, allowing federal funds to be used for anti-bullying program initiatives.
In October, the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights outlined the legal obligations of schools to address discriminatory acts against students based on the federally protected traits or classes of "race, color, national origin, sex, and disability." The Department encouraged education professionals to proactively protect all students against experiencing a "hostile environment" in which to learn. During the recent summit, Secretary Duncan said, "It is an absolute travesty of our educational system when students fear for their safety at school, worry about being bullied, or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or a host of other reasons."
The DOE’s statement also pointed out that many schools have enacted anti-bullying policies that prohibit discriminatory acts based on religion and sexual orientation, despite not being specifically obligated to do so under current federal civil rights laws. The distinction between those "categories" of identification that are federally protected by current civil rights laws, and those which are not, holds significant implications for the sociological dimensions of the issue of bullying. As sociologists, critical analyses of the interaction between structural conditions, existing relations of power, normative cultural orientations, and micro-level experiences scaffold our understandings of how the social world works.
Though variably framed as a public health risk, an educational equity issue, and/or a child safety threat, bullying is fundamentally about power. Bullying involves the micro-level enactment of abusive behavior that is intended to demonstrate the bully’s capacity to verbally, socially, or physically overpower the victim. In each of the tragic stories of youth suicide recently portrayed in the media, the damaging impact of bullying, whether online or in school, constituted a poignant example of what Mills would refer to as individual level "troubles." However, the anecdotal accounts of how ongoing victimization at the micro-level of their peer-group interactions preceded the suicides of these young people reveal patterns with regard to the societal-level issues of normative power relations that they reflect.
Although not in all cases, the experiences precipitating the suicides of many of the youth in these stories involve being repeatedly targeted on the basis of their actual or perceived membership in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community. Families, educational professionals, community leaders, counselors, and even celebrity advocates, have met these incidents with outreach efforts to assure young people that their lives are of value, and that their social experiences will "get better" as they grow older. However, these messages of hope and support are received amidst the explicitly mixed cultural messages regarding the degree to which LGBTQ Americans are "entitled" to the same rights, privileges, and protections that others are assumed to deserve. While victimization by harmful peer group bullying is not exclusive to LGBTQ youth, the normalized heterosexism of the broader society contextualizes these students’ experiences of anti-gay bullying in significant ways. Homophobic bullying occurs against the backdrop of ongoing, hegemonic complicity with the macro-level oppression of LGBTQ Americans, as is reflected in the persistent lack of federal protections against anti-gay discrimination in multiple aspects of social life.
Young people who are targeted for homophobic bullying still live in a society that accommodates anti-gay bigotry in many of its institutional practices and normative conventions. While the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in October 2009, included an unprecedented federal inclusion of "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" as protected categories, the scope of these protections is limited to the investigation and prosecution of criminal acts based on discriminatory motives. While it may not be socially acceptable to encourage anti-gay violence per se, there is a relatively wide margin within which anti-gay rhetoric, in all but the most vitriolic of its forms, is still framed as a legitimate difference of philosophy or opinion in American culture. When visible public figures unapologetically espouse homophobic/heterosexist ideologies couched in terms of "moral" values, their words and actions sanction the discriminatory processes through which members of the LGBTQ community are "othered" and marginalized.
When a student is held accountable for any form of bullying, the "teachable moment" is one of civility that affirms the educational institution’s commitment to fostering a respectful and safe learning environment. Nonetheless, policy-based approaches to shaping student behavior within institutional settings may be limited in the extent to which they can counteract the influence of hegemonic ideology on a young person’s perception of broader social relations. In the absence of civil rights protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in eligibility for military service, marriage, adoption, employment, and other aspects of social life, institutional efforts to convince students that they are obliged to treat each other as equals pose inherent contradictions. When young people enact homophobic bullying behaviors in classrooms and on social networking sites, they can easily find ideological "validation" for their aggressions; the broader culture’s persistent normalization of anti-gay rhetoric is likely to have already shaped their beliefs regarding who is a "legitimate" target for hostility. In such cases, the arguably bigger "teachable moment" regarding equity, fairness, and social justice may be undermined by the fact that the imbalances of power underlying incidents of anti-gay bullying correspond to those of the institutional and cultural contexts within which they occur.Back to Top of Page