The first thing law enforcement needs is a clear definition of what bullying is, which can be easier said than done -- the definitions for bullying are many. Webster's Dictionary defines bullying as treating someone abusively or affecting that person by means of force or coercion. Some school systems and state laws add these actions must be continuous and repeated over time. Others say the bully must have intended to do harm.
Coloroso says she prefers her definition, which defines bullying as "a conscious, willful, deliberate, hostile activity intended to harm where you often get pleasure from someone else's pain." The definition adds that bullying takes three forms: verbal, physical or relational, and may have as its overlay religion, race, gender, physical or mental ability or economic status.
Blanco further reminds law enforcement that bullying is not just an overt act of cruelty but also the deliberate omission of compassion, such as exclusion.
Davis adds he'd rather forego the term bullying. As he sees it, there is the larger category of peer mistreatment, which includes legally defined harassment. These are all behaviors a reasonable person would think would cause an individual to feel unsafe. "Mean behavior is likely to do harm, whether or not that harm was intended and whether or not we know for sure that harm actually happened," he says. "We know very well which actions by kids are likely to cause harm: name calling about personal characteristics, name calling about race, threats of violence, excluding someone from participating or stopping them from having friends, and spreading rumors. If you know which behaviors are likely to cause harm, you can do something about them."
Bullying prevention also requires law enforcement to hone its presence in the school system. "Law enforcement needs to develop relationships at a human level with school administrators, teachers and students," Blanco explains.
A school resource officer (SRO) can play a tremendous role in developing student connections. "They are out there in the halls, building connections with kids who are very hard to reach," says Davis, who says these relationships can promote the following among students:
- When other kids see a valued adult having a positive connection with a student, they tend to think more of that student and see him or her as having more value.
- A mistreated kid with an adult connection is more likely to reach out for help. "If they don't have anyone, they might keep the harassment to themselves," Davis says. Blanco adds, "Kids need to see policemen as allies and friends they feel comfortable reaching out to during a crisis. The only way this is going to happen is if the local police department reaches out to schools and starts a dialogue with students and faculty."
- If a valued adult tells a bully he or she needs to stop the behavior and offers to help him change it, the child may be more likely to stop. "They listen because of that connection, whereas if someone with no connection to them at all tells them to stop, they may not," Davis says.
- Kids who are potential bystanders are more likely to reach out to mistreated kids if they see valued adults being friendly with them.
- Bystanders are more likely to report mistreatment. There are three characters at play in a bullying tragedy: the bully, the bullied and the bystander, says Coloroso. Often when bystanders turn a blind eye to what was happening, it is because they are afraid to step in. "Police officers run into somebody who is afraid to speak up; afraid to tell what they saw," she explains. But those same individuals may be willing to speak up if they feel they have the protection of a valued adult.
Building relationships with school personnel also puts everyone on the same page when an incident occurs, adds Blanco. She recalls how a New Jersey principal brought in the local police chief to address homerooms and meet with faculty. Later, when a bullying incident occurred and police were called in, all entities were able to have a civilized and productive meeting of the minds because they already had established relationships. "It wasn't intimidating to have an officer present because there was that human connection," Blanco says.
When the call comes in