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Understanding Bullying

What is Bullying?

The definition below is used for bullying prevention and intervention programming in schools. This definition guides efforts to educate all constituents with common language around bullying.

Bullying is 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.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. - 2014 US Department of Education office of Safe Schools

In his writings, Dr. Dan Olweus, creator of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, is very clear that bullying is peer abuse that should not be tolerated.

Types of Bullying from

Verbal - speaking or writing mean things.

  • Teasing
  • Name-calling
  • Inappropriate sexual comments
  • Taunting
  • Threatening to cause harm

Social Bullying - (Relational Bullying) hurting someone’s reputation or relationships   

  • Leaving someone out on purpose
  • Telling other children not to be friends with someone
  • Spreading rumors about someone
  • Embarrassing someone in public

Physical bullying - hurting a person’s body or possessions  

  • Hitting/kicking/pinching
  • Spitting
  • Tripping/pushing
  • Taking or breaking someone’s things
  • Making mean or rude hand gestures

Bullying Defined in Iowa Law

Harassment and bullying are defined in Iowa Code section 280.28 as: Any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct toward a student which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment that meets one or more of the following conditions:

  • Places the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or property.
  • Has a substantially detrimental effect on the student's physical or mental health.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student's academic performance.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with the student's ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school

"Trait or characteristic of the student" includes but is not limited to age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, or familial status.

Bullying is Not

Conflict is not Bullying. A conflict is a disagreement or antagonism between two or more people. All parties involved have some responsibility for the encounter. It is not bullying when two or more kids with no perceived power imbalance, fight, have an argument or disagree. Conflict resolution strategies can be employed to find common ground when both parties have a vested interested in resolving the conflict. Peer mediation may be appropriate in conflict situations. Bullying is peer abuse and needs to be reported and treated as such. Peer mediation is not appropriate in bullying.

The difficulty here is to know when a situation is conflict and when it can be relational bullying or social bullying. Relational bullying does occur within social groups of “friends.” It is critical for educators to be careful to seek to understand when “friend” behaviors that might have been conflicts turn into bullying. Be careful to:

  • Understand the characteristics of relational bullying
  • Educate all staff, students and parents about relational bullying
  • Make sure you are addressing social and emotional development for all students
  • When bullying is reported NEVER bring those involved together for the interview, do not intervene and treat the report as a conflict without first investigating and assuring bullying is not occurring

What works in Addressing Bullying?


The following activities from the Violence Prevention Works website can help teachers build and sustain a safe, secure classroom environment:

  • Develop, post, and discuss rules and sanctions related to bullying.
  • Treat students and each other with warmth and respect. Demonstrate positive interest and involvement in your students.
  • Establish yourself as a clear and visible authority with responsibility for making the school experience safe and positive.
  • Reward students for positive, inclusive behavior.
  • Take immediate action when bullying is observed and consistently use nonphysical, non-hostile negative consequences when rules are broken.
  • Listen to parents and students who report bullying in your classroom. Quickly and effectively resolve the issue to avoid perpetuation of bullying behaviors.
  • Notify parents of all involved students when a bullying incident occurs, and resolve the problem expeditiously, according to discipline plans at school.
  • Refer students affected by bullying to school counseling or mental health staff, if needed.
  • Protect students who are bullied with a safety plan.
  • Hold class meetings during which students can talk about bullying and peer relations.
  • Provide information to parents about bullying behaviors and encourage their involvement and support in addressing bullying issues.

Parents and Families

Parents and families play a central role to preventing bullying and stopping it when it happens. The following list from National Crime Prevention Council website are a few things parents and families can do:

  • Teach kids to solve problems without using violence and praise them when they do.
  • Give children positive feedback when they behave well to help their build self-esteem. Help give them the self-confidence to stand up for what they believe in.
  • Ask your children about their day and listen to them talk about school, social events, their classmates, and any problems they have.
  • Take bullying seriously. Many kids are embarrassed to say they have been bullied. You may only have one chance to step in and help.
  • If you see any bullying, stop it right away, even if your child is the one doing the bullying.
  • Encourage your child to help others who need it.
  • Don't bully your children or bully others in front of them. Many times kids who are bullied at home react by bullying other kids. If your children see you hit, ridicule, or gossip about someone else, they are also more likely to do so themselves.
  • Support bully prevention programs in your child's school. If your school doesn't have one, consider starting one with other parents, teachers, and concerned adults.

Help your child deal with bullying by talking to teachers, administrators, and staff. The following PDF files give more information:

Reporting Bullying to Schools- Assistance for Parents/Families

When bullying occurs, contact the school immediately and join with the district in gathering information and conducting an inquiry and or investigation to assure any bullying is stopped. Here are some resources that parents may find helpful in this effort.

  1. Guidelines for Parents in Reporting Bullying
  2. Worksheet for Parents in Reporting Bullying
  3. Parent Checklist in Reporting Bullying
  4. Types of Bullying
  5. Support for Bullying Issues: Websites for Parents
  6. Safety Plan When Bullying is Reported
  7. Safety Plan When Bullying is Confirmed


School administrators have the opportunity to address school bullying on all levels of a student's experience. By leading school or district in bullying prevention efforts, administrators can help create a safer, more positive learning environment. The following is a list of Ten Tips for Administrators to Address Bullying in School is from the Violence Prevention Works website:

  1. Focus on the social environment of the school.
  2. Assess bullying at your school.
  3. Garner staff and parent support for bullying prevention.
  4. Form a group to coordinate the school's bullying prevention activities.
  5. Train your staff in bullying prevention.
  6. Establish and enforce school rules and policies related to bullying.
  7. Increase adult supervision in hot spots where bullying occurs.
  8. Intervene consistently and appropriately in bullying situations.
  9. Focus some class time on bullying prevention.
  10. Continue these efforts over time.

What does not work in Addressing Bullying?

Misdirection Why it’s not recommended
Zero Tolerance
  • Unrealistic and disruptive, given the numbers of students involved in bullying.
  • Doesn’t allow for intervention or consequences that teach and reinforce new skills.
  • Lack of supervision for students at home on suspension or expulsion.
  • Severe punishments can deter reporting.
  • We want to meet the needs of all students.
Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation
  • Implies both parties bear responsibility.
  • May further victimize the target.
  • Bullying is abuse, not another problem behavior.
Group Therapeutic Treatment
  • Group members may model inappropriate behavior.
  • Can reinforce bullying behavior.
Overstating or simplifying the relationship between bullying and suicide Using words like bullycide or bullied to death, or reading books/viewing videos that depict suicides by bullied students are not recommended because:
  • It suggests that bullying may be caused by only one factor
  • It increases the risk of suicide contagion and communicates to bullied students that suicide is an option to solve the problem
  • Diminishes the fact that while some kids are seriously harmed and a small number do take their own lives, most students will bounce back from cruelty at the hands of other kids. They’ll remember being bullied or being a bully and will have learned something useful, even though painful.
Simple, short-term solutions
  • One shot assemblies or speakers are unlikely to reduce bullying problems and often make bullying problems worse.
  • One-time staff trainings do not give staff the tools they need to effectively prevent and respond to bullying.

Legal Requirements

All school boards, public and those of accredited non-public schools are to have the anti-bullying/anti-harassment policy adopted on or before September 1, 2007. Read more about the Anti-harassment/Anti-bullying policies.

In addition to the 17 traits or characteristics in the new bullying bill, the Iowa legislature this year amended the Iowa Civil Rights Act (Iowa Code chapter 216) to add sexual orientation and gender identity. Read more about nondiscrimination in education.

17 protected traits or characteristics in the Law
In the law there are seventeen areas specifically addressed as protected for students. They are: real or perceived age,color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, or familial status. Harassment against employees based on race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, age or disability is also protected.

Resources for Schools to Use for Professional Development

Bullying and Civil Rights: An Overview of School Districts' Federal Obligation to Respond to Harassment - The webinar and other materials on this page discuss the obligation of school districts to respond to allegations of harassment in a prompt, thorough, and effective manner. They also provide examples of appropriate and inappropriate responses and give ideas about what to do if harassment continues.

Federal Dear Colleague Letters regarding Bulling and Harassment

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Sample Policy

The Iowa Department of Education (DE) and the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) provided a sample policy that addresses the requirements of the legislation. This is a sample policy and it is recommended that school districts consult their legal counsel in developing local policies.

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Sample Policy

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Complaint Form

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Witness Disclosure Form

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Investigation Procedures

Anti-Bullying/Harassment Disposition of Complaint Form

Data Reporting

All incidents found to be a violation of Iowa’s anti-bullying/harassment law should be reported. The criteria for Iowa's anti-bullying/harassment law are

  • conduct placed the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or property
  • conduct had a substantially detrimental effect on the student's physical or mental health
  • conduct had the effect of substantially interfering with the student's academic performance
  • conduct had the effect of substantially interfering with the student's ability to participate in or benefit from services, activities, or privileges provided by a school

An incident meeting one or more of the above criteria is a violation of the law.

Accredited public and nonpublic schools are required to submit these data to the Department.

Bullying and harassment data for the 2017-2018 school year will be collected at the district level at the end of the reporting period through Survey Monkey. Public districts and nonpublic schools will be required to submit total counts for each data element for incident found to have been a violation of the law. Only one survey per district will be accepted.

The documents below have been provided to help ensure that valid and reliable data are reported to the Department. The template provided is for use in acquiring aggregate counts, not for final reporting to the Department. Each superintendent will submit a single aggregate count for their district. The Department highly encourages use of the template to prepare counts for this single submission as the survey will have to be completed in a single session and cannot be revisited.

Bullying/Harassment Data Instructions (2016-08-30)

Bullying/Harassment Data Instructions - Examples (2016-08-30)

Certification of these data will be required at the end of the reporting period, which is defined as July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

Data Reported for 2008-2009 to 2015-2016

AEA Support Network

Iowa AEAs and some school districts have Trained Specialists in bullying prevention and intervention. Each staff member listed here has been trained in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (pronounced Ol-VAY-us). Olweus is a comprehensive approach that includes schoolwide, classroom, individual, and community components. The program is focused on long-term change that creates a safe and positive school climate. It is designed and evaluated for use in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools (K-12). The program’s goals are to reduce and prevent bullying problems among schoolchildren and to improve peer relations at school.

Iowa Olweus Trainer/Consultants

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has been proven to significantly reduce student reports of being bullied and bullying others.  Results have also shown marked reductions in student reports of general antisocial behavior such as vandalism, fighting, theft and truancy; and clear improvements in the classroom social climate, as reflected in students' reports of improved order and discipline, more positive social relationships, and more positive attitudes toward schoolwork and school. Olweus Programming materials and resources available through Violence Prevention Works.
Today the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is being used in over 6,000 schools nationwide and 700 individuals are trained to implement the program. Training is developed and conducted by the Institute for Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University, Clemson, SC.

Olweus Bullying Prevention and Common Core

Resources - The official U.S. Government website for information regarding Bullying is managed by the Department of Health & Human Services in partnership with the Iowa Department of Education and Department of Justice.

Cyberbullying: Doing Something about It, Lawfully - This document addresses the legal aspects of cyberbullying. The document addresses when a school may discipline the cyberbully. More importantly, the document discusses steps that must be taken by school officials even in situations where the school cannot lawfully punish the cyberbully.

Best Practices in Bullying Prevention Programs - A guide developed for you with ten components and further descriptors to help you evaluate any bullying prevention programs you might consider.

Program Selection Guidelines - As schools begin to implement their policies and practices with regard to anti-bullying and harassment issues, the Iowa Department of Education's document provides an excerpt from "Preventing Bullying Policy." These excerpts are intended as a starting point to sort those programs that hold the greatest potential for success from those that have the best marketing strategy. It is titled: Program Selection Guidelines.

Analyzing Existing Bullying Behaviors
The Olweus program includes the administration and follow-up of a data tool called the BVQ. (Bully, Victim Questionnaire) Questions on the Iowa Youth Survey regarding bullying and harassment are closely aligned with the BVQ. See your AEA Olweus Trainer for more information regarding the BVQ.

Iowa Association of School Boards Presentation, May 2007 - You will find a PowerPoint presentation for school administrators and school board members across Iowa delivered as a component to the spring 2007 workshop addressing the new bullying and harassment law.

Iowa Public Television ICN Series on Anti-Bullying and Harassment
Anti-Bullying and Anti-Harassment Part I (Definitions, Effects of Bullying, What works and what doesn't, Bullying Data, Possible Next Steps) A professional development session already prepared for a district or building to use in conjunction with efforts to understand the new law and reduce bullying and harassment in schools.

A Parents' Guide to Facebook - Designed to teach parents how to help their teens strengthen their privacy and safety on Facebook, the guide features important topics such as risks involved in social networking, how to parent Facebook users, managing reputation in the digital age, managing your privacy on Facebook, reporting problems and more.  The guidebook is published in partnership with the iKeepSafe Coalition.

What we know about Bullying Tip Sheet

Warning signs that a child is being Bullied Tip Sheet

How to Talk with Educators at Your Childs School About Bullying: Tips for Parents of Bullied Children

Children who Bully others Tip Sheet

Bullying and Children with Disabilities Tip Sheet

Bullying and Sexual Orientation Tip Sheet

Best Practices in Bullying Prevention Tip Sheet

Protecting your Child from Electronic Aggression

Electronic Aggression Brief from the Center for Disease Control

Bullying Fact Sheet from Centers for Disease Control

Misdirections in Bullying Prevention and Intervention

Myths About Bullying

Preventing Child and Youth Sexual Violence: A Resource for Iowa Families - The term "sexual violence" is used to describe violence against someone that is sexual in nature. It may include behaviors that are physical, verbal, or visual. There are three different types of sexual violence described in this dosument--sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. This document provides general information and resources to help parents and families understand, recognize, and respond to sexual violence of their child or youth. Resources are organized into groups to ensure age appropriateness.

Athletic Eligibility Guidance

Athletic Eligibility of Students Open Enrolling due to Bullying and Harassment

On April 7, 2016 House File 2264 signed into law by Governor Branstad allows the following exception to ninety day ineligibility for participation in athletic competitions for students open enrolling:

“… if the district of residence determines that the pupil was previously subject to a founded incident of harassment or bullying as defined in section 280.28 while attending school in the district of residence.”

This means any student will be immediately eligible for varsity athletic competitions if the resident district has determined that the student exercising open enrollment was subject to a founded incident of harassment or bullying as defined by Iowa Code section 280.28.

Guidance on Varsity Athletic Eligibility of Students Open Enrolling due to Bullying and Harassment

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on August 21, 2017 at 5:49am.