Bullying in School



The issue of bullying in school has been in the center of researchers’ attention all over the world for several decades already. Various investigations are aimed at disclosing the underlying reasons of the phenomenon, its effects on everyone involved, and possible remedies that could either prevent bullying or reverse its negative outcomes. Besides, numerous intervention programs have been designed and implemented in various countries. These programs are mainly based on the early 1990’s Norwegian study of school bullying that displayed high level of success in terms of decreasing the bullying occurrence rates. However, all these programs have different rates of success, which is also the topic of researchers who are involved in identifying programs’ strengths and weaknesses as well as in trying to develop an all-encompassing efficient school intervention program. This paper is a literature review of 13 scientific articles dedicated to various aspects of school bullying. Despite the abundance of raised topics, these articles often overlap in terms of certain issues and themes that are to be discussed in this paper.

Keywords: bullying, bully, victim, bully-victim, bystander, school setting, liability, intervention programs, psychological profile


The problem of bullying has become the center issue of researchers’ attention since the early 1990s. Although bullying can occur in various social settings, for instance, in prisons and at workplaces, it is mainly associated with school settings. The scope of literature dedicated to this topic is immense with researchers emphasizing versatile aspects of the phenomenon. The main topics associated with bullying include debates concerning the definition of the phenomenon, students’ roles and their psychological profiling, moral disengagement of students depending on the degree of their involvement into the instance of bullying, influence of social environment and school climate on the rate of bullying, role of teachers and school administrators in terms of stopping and preventing bullying, development and implementation of various intervention and prevention programs, and critical assessment of the existing body of literature on the topic.

This literature review is aimed at giving a comprehensive literature review of 13 scholarly articles dedicated to miscellaneous aspects of the issue. The number of articles is relatively small due to the space limitation of the paper, yet the chosen scholarly material is representative of different existing directions of the research on school bullying. Initially, it seems relevant to dwell upon the definitions of key terms that are exploited in all articles on the topic despite existing debates among researchers concerning their accuracy and appropriateness. This paper is going to use the definitions and key terms accepted by the majority of scholars in this field. Afterwards, the paper is to give a review of literature organized by the following themes: ambiguity of the definition of bullying; classification of bullying instances; students’ roles in bullying and their psychological profiles; racial and gender factors in bullying; school setting and teachers’ role; intervention and prevention programs; and critical assessment of researches.

Discussion of Key Terms

The definition of the term bullying has been the heatedly debated topic among researchers who cannot agree on one unified approach to defining the phenomenon stressing its various aspects and including slightly differing characteristics. The first ever definition of bullying was given by Peter-Paul Heinemann in 1972 and it sounds in the following way: “the group’s collective aggressiveness towards an individual or a group of individuals who provoke or attract this aggressiveness” (Horton, 2011, 268). The majority of researchers accept the Olweus’s definition concerning bullying, slightly modifying it, yet preserving the core idea that “bullying comprises physical, psychological or verbal actions perpetrated by a more powerful person or a group of persons against a weaker person with intention of causing harm” (Baldry & Farrington, 2007, 183).

A bully is a person who systematically victimizes another weaker student in various ways while displaying “particular behavioral tendencies” (Brank et al., 2012, 217), often being exposed to aggressiveness in the family setting, yet rarely or never being abused (Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2010), striving to occupy a leader’s position in the group of peers (Horton, 2011), and showing “a higher level of moral disengagement” (Obermann, 2011, 243). However, researchers’ opinions concerning typical bully’s characteristics and motives differ (Varjas et al., 2008, 99), which is going to be expanded further in the paper.

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Victims of bullying are normally “anxious, insecure, cautious, and suffering from low self-esteem, rarely defending themselves or retaliating when confronted by students who bully them” (Essex, 2011, 194). All researchers agree that the victim usually somehow differs from the rest, which is the main reason of him/her being chosen as the object of bullying. Besides, “victims are disliked by peers”, which intensifies with time (Obermann, 2011, 241).

A bully-victim is the most vulnerable student in the bullying situation who often experiences the most severe psychological suffering (Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2010). It is “a student who was once bullied” and “may also begin later bully others” (Horton, 2011, 271).

A bystander is another actor of the bullying incidence that is present in about 85% of cases (Obermann, 2011, 240). Although some studies consider bystanders to be passive supporters of bullies (Langdon & Preble, 2008), this paper will follow the approach that determines bystanders as “children indirectly involved in bullying” and classifies them into four types: outsiders, defenders, guilty bystanders, and unconcerned bystanders (Obermann, 2011, 239).

School setting means not only the building and the number of students, but it is regarded as a social institution including “the way teachers facilitate or protect against bullying, the influence of the school ethos, and the network of relationships within the class” (Bacchini et al., 2009, 18).

Teachers’ and school administrators’ liability in terms of bullying concerns their “legal duty to reasonably protect students from intimidation and threats to their safety” (Essex, 2011, 194). It “may result from deliberate acts committed by teachers and administrators or acts involving negligence” (Essex, 2011, 195).

Intervention and prevention programs cover a variety of researchers’ programs aimed at assessing bullying situation in schools and designing a plan of actions to decrease the level of bullying either in a specific school or in a variety of schools. Programs may be local and country-wide and may be based upon different methods, techniques, and approaches (Baldry & Farrington, 2007; Rawana et al., 2011).

Review of the Literature Organized by Themes

Ambiguity of the Definition of Bullying

The issue of giving an all-encompassing and unified definition of bullying that will satisfy both the representatives of scholarly and legislative discourses has been present for a long time. Most researchers agree that the definition is “still problematic” (Dixon, 2008, 95), yet some conform to the usage of Olweus’s three integral elements: “intentional harm doing”, its occurrence “repeatedly over time”, and “imbalance of power” between a bully and a victim with the latter being significantly weaker either physically or psychologically (Varjas et al., 2008, 98). Legal definitions often differ in various countries and even in different regions of the same country, but they “generally include intent and harm components but leave out the necessary imbalance of power” (Brank et al., 2012, 222). Some researchers suppose that it is essential not only to accept the general scholarly definition as the only possible, but also to study students’ perceptions of the phenomenon as they are its main participants and observers. Thus, K. Varjas and his colleagues (2008) have discovered that students’ understanding of bullying negates the above mentioned three obligatory elements. Students do not think that all bullies want to inflict intentional harm on victims as well as “a power differential” is not always present (Varjas et al., 2008, 112). Besides, students disagree with an idea that bullies are unpopular children suffering from some psychological traumas as they simply “engage in bullying behavior to become the ‘highest person’ or achieve a leadership position among their peers” (Varjas et al., 2008, 112). Besides, the theme of power relations present in bullying instances is sometimes considered as the reflection of “the relations of power that are dominant within society” (Horton, 2011, 269). Withal, the topic of definition is raised more or less in all reviewed articles as it is the pivotal component of conducting a study of any aspect of the problem.

Classification of Bullying Instances

Generally, researchers distinguish three main types of bullying: verbal, physical, and relational (Mendez et al., 2012; Dixon, 2008; Baldry & Farrington, 2007; Varjas et al., 2008). However, cyberbullying is often mentioned as the fourth type, meaning “peer aggression committed using technologies such as text messages, emails, or social networking sites” (Brank et al., 2012, 214). Verbal bullying takes the form of teasing and name calling, while physical bullying presupposes hitting someone or applying physical force in any way (Mendez et al., 2012). Relational bullying presupposes “spreading rumors and attempting to limit the victim’s friendships through verbal manipulation of peers” (Varjas et al., 2008, 107).

Students’ Roles in Bullying and Their Psychological Profiles

Various studies are dedicated to the aspect of defining students’ roles in bullying incidents, making their psychological profiles, and researching the potential impact of bullying on everyone involved (Essex, 2011; Mendez et al., 2012; Brank et al., 2012; Varjas et al., 2008; Obermann, 2011; Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2010; Horton, 2011; Bacchini et al., 2009; Langdon & Preble, 2008). Thus, bullies are often described as “impulsive, easily frustrated, dominant in personality and having difficulty in conforming to rules” (Essex, 2011, 193). According to their psychological profiles, they tend to occupy a dominant role in any relationships with their peers and are distinguished by the lack of empathy in addition to “displaying high self-esteem” and “egoistic defensive traits” (Bacchini et al., 2009, 18). They tend to be brought up in a potentially dangerous and violent environment (Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2010) and be prone to ne engaged in various student risk behaviors (Klein et al., 2012). Moreover, although some studies hypothesize that bullies are likely to have been subjected to some critical comments or abusive treatment themselves at some stage of their lives (Mendez et al., 2012), they often turn out to be popular with the majority of students and enjoy their respect (Langdon & Preble, 2008).

The studies are more unanimous in terms of victims’ psychological profiles always depicting them as weak, depression-prone, “less competent in understanding social norms related to displaying sadness” (Brank et al., 2012, 217), submissive, and different from the rest either in the way they dress, behave, or in any other way. They are not respected by their classmates and are often even disliked by them (Langdon & Preble, 2008). The psychological profiling of bully-victims is the most complicated process as they possess the qualities of both victims and aggressors. Often their bullying may be viewed as the expression of their inability to defend themselves from stronger students, hence retaliating at weaker ones. Besides direct participants of bullying, researchers are interested in studying the role of bystanders and their psychological characteristics, subdividing them into outsiders, defenders, guilty bystanders, and unconcerned bystanders all of whom display varying levels of moral disengagement (Obermann, 2011).

Racial and Gender Factors in Bullying

The pertinent issue of how racial and gender factors influence bullying is sufficiently covered in the existing body of literature on bullying. Among the reviewed articles, this question is addressed in a comprehensive way only in researches conducted by J. Klein and her colleagues, and by J. J. Mendez and his colleagues. However, the first research is more focused on analyzing gender and racial differences in terms of their likeliness to engage in aggressive risk behavior and to seek help (Klein et al., 2012, 156). The second research deals with the issue of intercultural bullying, namely of immigrant Mexican students being bullied by Mexican Americans (Mendez et al., 2012). The problem of intercultural bullying seems to be insufficiently studied as all intervention programs do not account for racial factors addressing the problem in general. It has turned out that the main reasons why Mexican Americans bully immigrant Mexican students because of the perceived superiority of the former and language barrier, isolation, alienation of the latter (Mendez et al., 2012).

School Setting and Teachers’ Role

School setting is regarded to play a key role in determining the level of bullying among students, therefore being studied by various researchers. Some studies focus on the fact that school is a safe place and teachers are thus responsible for preventing and intervening in bullying (Essex, 2011; Mendez et al., 2012; Rawana et al., 2011), while other researches indicate the direct relationship between school climate and bullying (Klein et al., 2012; Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2010). Furthermore, “school should not be understood as a collection of individuals, but rather as an institution wherein particular social and moral orders are reiterated, reinforced, subverted and contested” (Horton, 2011, 273). If school climate is protective and relationships between students and teachers are based on mutual respect, then such an atmosphere may be “an important protective factor in preventing student risk behavior” as well as bullying (Klein et al., 2012, 154). Students suppose that teachers are partially to be blamed for bullying in some cases as they do not intervene in addition to the existing “administrative disconnect between school officials and students” (Mendez et al., 2012, 293). In some studies, students even expressed the “desire for more teachers in the classroom and the hallways, as well as other areas where bullying was likely to happen” (Varjas et al., 2008, 112). Teachers’ failure to prevent bullying and to intervene when necessary may be sometimes deemed as negligence and incur tort liability, though victims rarely win cases against bullies, their parents, and teachers or school in general in the court (Essex, 2011). Another factor of school setting that can predict the frequency of bullying is respect: the higher the level of peer and adult respect is, the less likely the bullying is to occur (Langdon & Preble, 2008).

Intervention and Prevention Programs

Due to the acuteness of the bullying problem and its high frequency in school, researchers and educators have attempted to design an efficient intervention and prevention program that will significantly decrease the level of bullying, raise teachers’, students’, and parents’ awareness of the problem, and change their attitude to it. All these programs vary in applied methods, techniques, and implementation mode, but they all are aimed at achieving the highest possible reduction in the frequency of bullying. The programs may be either local or national. Some studies are dedicated to the evaluation of various programs’ efficacy in order to determine the most productive components and possibly exploit them in the future. For instance, one study assessed 16 prevention and intervention programs from all over the world and determined that only 8 of them had desirable results while 2 had undesirable results, the rest produced mixed and negligible results (Baldry & Farrington, 2007). A relatively recent and moderately effective, though limited by a small number of participants, program is called Strengths in Motion Bullying Prevention Program launched in Northern Ontario, Canada and incorporating successful elements of many previous intervention programs analyzed by its developers (Rawana et al., 2011). This program differs from many similar ones as it is grounded upon “a strength-based approach” that endeavors to promote “students’ individual positive attributes or strengths” and to foster “a positive climate in the school”, thus acknowledging the importance of a school setting in combating bullying (Rawana et al., 2011, 286)

Critical Assessment of Researches

All researchers give a critical review and evaluation of their predecessors’ works while studying any aspect of bullying as it provides them with a valuable asset for using other scholars’ successes and avoiding their mistakes. However, rare works aim at exploring “the issues for both the individual practitioner/researcher and the field as a whole in developing and integrating theory in relation to school bullying” (Dixon, 2008, 83). Nonetheless, the field of bullying studies is constantly evolving and new theories emerge all the time, hence necessitating researches that investigate how these new theories are either accepted or rejected by others and how they may be incorporated into the general body of knowledge. The study conducted by R. Dixon (2008) shows that the majority of scholars and educators tend to accept immediately only those theories that correlate with their own opinions on the topic. This information is crucial for scholars who conduct innovative researches in order not to be discouraged by the majority’s possible initial rejection.


The issue of bullying is currently being actively researched from various perspectives. Countries all over the world are concerned with the high level of school bullying and its detrimental effect on children. Recent shooting incidents in the USA have been connected with bullying as well as the increase in the number of children’s suicides is also blamed on this phenomenon. Therefore, intensive further studying of this problem is necessary with the development and implementation of various effective prevention and intervention programs. Schools should become safe places where children feel comfortable and can learn without the constant threat of being bullied or anxiety from being a witness of bullying. More research is needed on the role of racial and gender factors on bullying as well as efficient training programs for teachers should be designed. Despite a great amount of already conducted researches, there is still left more to be studied and developed for the successful elimination of bullying in the school environment.

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