Don’t Call Severe Assaults ‘Bullying’

Doing so promulgates the perception that serious child-on-child attacks are no big deal.

It seems like everyday, I wake up to find some person or organization has changed the name of a problem or situation to make it more socially acceptable or politically palatable. Although I often find this practice to be annoying, I’ll admit that I also do it on occasion. I prefer to label “problems” as “challenges” because the word “challenge” puts a more positive, hopeful spin on an issue that needs to be resolved.

Sometimes the name-change game can be downright amusing. One friend of mine recently joked that when he had a job as a gas station attendant, he called himself a “petroleum transfer specialist.” 

Although revising the names of things can sometimes be silly or calculated political ploys, under certain circumstances, the changes are appropriate and necessary. This is particularly true when it comes to how we use the word “bullying.” There are times when we must have the guts to give a more accurate, negative and graphic label to this issue, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

With severe child-on-child or employee-on-employee threats and assaults, describing this kind of violence as “bullying” seems much too soft because it minimizes the extremely real suffering these attacks inflict on their victims. Two incidents that have been recently portrayed as extreme cases of bullying prove my point:

  • Last fall, a male teen from Florida almost died after his buddies allegedly doused him with rubbing alcohol and lit him on fire over a dispute involving a video game. He suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than two thirds of his body.
  • This spring, a Florida female middle school student was hospitalized for months after allegedly being stomped and beaten by her friend’s boyfriend after a nasty exchange of text messages. She is currently confined to a wheelchair and learning to talk again.

In both cases, the suspected attackers have been charged with attempted murder. If the courts and law enforcement are willing to label these alleged offenses in this way, why are so many of us tip toeing around and still calling them bullying? 

Perhaps it’s just me. The meaning of “bullying” has changed over the years – the word doesn’t just refer to minor schoolyard tussles anymore. It now encompasses an entire range of incidents, from minor spats to serious violence and even torture. Despite the recent definition change, however, the word’s original, almost cute connotation remains difficult for me to ignore.

We need to find a different word to describe serious bullying incidents – like “assault” or “attack.” Don’t get me wrong: I doubt any of the alleged attackers in the two cases I just described are hardened criminals. Nor do I believe the suspects, if found guilty, should receive the same punishments that adults would receive under similar circumstances. 

Still, “assaults” or “attacks,” rather than “bullying” are more accurate depictions of this kind of violence and more respectful of the victims and their experiences. Calling these incidents “bullying” doesn’t do them justice. And isn’t justice exactly what victims need?

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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