Conflicts vs. Bullying

Many organizational leaders will tell you that conflict is inevitable. If people interact long enough, they will eventually disagree and have conflict. Administrators and staff must understand the difference between conflict and bullying in school. If your child has been accused of bullying or harassment, you may feel that the school is mischaracterizing a normal middle or high school conflict as bullying. Often, school administrators may need help understanding the difference between conflict and bullying when investigating bullying allegations.  

If your child is accused of bullying at school, they may face remedial measures, including suspension or expulsion. School officials may report the bullying allegations to law enforcement in some situations. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can provide a tough and effective defense to allegations of bullying, intimidation, or harassment (HIB) in New Jersey. Call 888.535.3686 or provide your details online, and we will contact you.  

Types of Bullying  

  • Verbal Bullying Verbal bullying may involve mean words, racial or ethnic slurs, or abusive teasing. This type of bullying involves relentless insults and demeaning comments. Verbal bullying escalates over time and often involves targeting particular individuals who lack the power to fight back. 
  • Physical Bullying Physical bullying is stereotypical bullying behavior that includes hitting, kicking, shoving, and other forms of physical violence. It may also include threats of violence. When physical bullying can be observed, it is easy to identify.  
  • Social Harassment/Exclusion This type of bullying is more difficult to identify as it involves the manipulation of relationships. Particularly for girls, bullying may involve denying a person contact or inclusion in a group. Sometimes, rudeness or mean behavior is misjudged as social harassment or exclusion.  
  • Cyberbullying If social media or other electronic communication is used to bully or harass someone, it is termed cyberbullying. Cyberbullying may involve posting or sharing lewd or private information concerning an individual, or it may be used to harass and demean a person on social media.  

According to a Youth Truth Survey, the most common type of bullying is verbal harassment (79 percent), followed by social harassment (50 percent). Cyberbullying was the least common type, with only 25 percent of bullied students reporting that they were bullied through electronic means. But cyberbullying was complicated in that of those students who said they were being cyberbullied, three-quarters were also verbally harassed, and two-thirds were socially harassed. A third of students who were cyberbullied also reported physical harassment. So, cyberbullying may be less of a separate type of harassment and more of a convenient tool used by already prolific bullies.  

Conflict vs. Bullying  

It may seem to some parents that inevitable conflicts in middle and high school are classified and punished as bullying. Huge differences exist between normal conflict and bullying. A certain degree of conflict is standard in any group or organization. Everyone is rejected at some point, and every rejection is not bullying, even a painful rejection. Rude or mean behavior is not necessarily bullying because the behavior may not be intentional and is not repetitive. Bullying is a narrow class of behavior and must be distinguished from everyday conflict.  

Characteristics of Conflict 

Conflict is a disagreement between two or more individuals who may be peers and may otherwise get along and be respectful.  

Conflict is a part of all human relationships.  

Conflict is not always neat and is often not kind, but it is a part of every human relationship. People vary considerably in conflict management skills, but even those without good skills are not necessarily bullies. Conflict can be healthy for relationships, allowing them to change and grow.  

Conflict Involves Balanced Power 

Conflicts involve relationships with balanced power dynamics. When two people agree but one is not in a position of power or authority over the other, the disagreement is best characterized as conflict and not bullying. For example, if two friends disagree about a lost item, they are engaged in a personal conflict, and one person is not using power to control the other. 

Conflict Can Escalate, but it Remains Isolated and Infrequent. 

It is not the severity of the behavior that characterizes conflict versus bullying. Conflicts can be severe, and bullying can be mild. People involved in conflict can become belligerent or even “come to blows,” but this behavior is isolated and is not done repetitively. Conflicts between parties may occur only once or are infrequent.  

Conflict is Not Done With the Intent to Harm 

When people engage in conflict, they do not intend to harm each other. Most people involved in conflict are relieved when the dispute is resolved.  

Conflict May Arise Spontaneously Without Intent 

Conflict may result from a failure to consider others' feelings before making a statement. In these situations, the behavior is mild and not deliberate or purposeful. By contrast, bullying is typically neither mild nor spontaneous but will deliberately escalate over time. 

Conflict is a Disagreement on Both Sides 

In a conflict, both parties will become frustrated or angry, and both sides may become aggressive. Both parties are engaged, and neither party will typically enjoy the interaction.  

Characteristics of Bullying 

Bullying Involves Unequal Power 

Bullying involves an imbalance of power between the parties. The bully holds power and exploits that power to harm the victim. If one person in a disagreement does not have or exploit unequal power, it is probably not bullying.  

Bullying is Repetitive 

Bullying is typically not a “one-and-done” activity. Bullies will engage in repetitive behavior either against an individual or a group. If behavior is isolated—an isolated remark that offends an individual, for instance—it is probably not bullying. At the heart of bullying is repetitive and relentless harassment.  

Bullying is Intentional and Deliberate 

The person who is bullying intends to harm their victim. Harm is the point and the goal of bullying behavior. If a person does not intend to harm others with their words or actions, they are not bullying. 

Bullying is Motivated by Actual or Perceived Characteristics 

Bullying is often motivated by race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or other perceived characteristics of the victim.  

Bullying involves One-Sided Aggression. 

Bullying will typically involve aggression on one side only. The perpetrator will act aggressively while the victim has no real disagreement and seeks to avoid the perpetrator.  

Labeling Conflict as Bullying 

Under New Jersey law, school districts must adopt and enforce an anti-bullying policy. While the law broadly defines bullying, school districts can adopt an even broader definition in their policy statements and Code of Conduct. With minimal training, school administrators and board members may identify normal conflict as bullying.  

It may be up to the party accused of bullying or harassment to educate the board or the principal on the differences between normal conflict and bullying. This may be done by putting forth defenses to allegations of bullying.  

Defenses to Bullying Allegations 

  1. Lack of Intent to Harm. If an individual accused of bullying lacks any intent to harm the victim or subject the victim to threats of harm, the standard for bullying has likely not been met. To meet the standard for bullying, the perpetrator must act to harm or demean the victim.  
  2. Isolated Remarks. If a student is accused of bullying based on an isolated remark, the person making the accusation has failed to understand that bullying is repetitive and purposeful. Everyone occasionally makes a remark that may offend someone, but it is not bullying if the remark is isolated and not repeated.  
  3. A Balance of Power. If two individuals disagree at school, but neither is more powerful, and they hold relatively equal power and status, neither party is bullying the other. When two people of equal status disagree, it is typically characterized as conflict rather than bullying.  

When Self Defense is labeled as Bullying or Fighting 

 It is a scene played out in many television shows and movies: a kid stands up to his bully and may even push or punch him. The story's moral is that being brave and standing up to bullies is always important. Unfortunately, in reality, a student who defends themselves against a bully is highly likely to face discipline. They may even be labeled bullies, which is ironic but upsetting to the student and their parent or guardian.  

Bullying is never a two-sided conflict. Further, while the school may want the student to seek help instead of fighting back, that is not always possible. Middle school students often lack the skills to anticipate conflict, walk away from it, and report it. Trying to comply with the school's Zero Tolerance Policy on fighting may leave a student feeling defenseless in the face of either bullying or conflict. The need for self-defense may result in a confrontation with the other party.  

If your child is facing discipline charges for defending themselves, call the Lento Law Firm and begin a line of communication with the school. Every student should have the ability to defend themselves against an aggressor.  

HIB Violations under NJ Law  

HIB (harassment, intimidation, and bullying) are defined in the New Jersey code. New Jersey law (NJSA 18A:37-14B) defines HIB violations as having three requirements:  

  1. The violation must be motivated by the victim's actual or perceived characteristics. This characteristic may be race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, disability, or other distinguishing characteristics.  
  2. The violation must either occur on school property, at a school-sponsored event, on a school bus or must (if it occurs off-campus) substantially disrupt or interfere with school operations or the rights of other students.  
  3. The behavior must physically or emotionally harm the student or their property or create a hostile school environment by interfering with the student's education or causing severe and pervasive harm.  

False Accusations of HIB 

Every New Jersey school district HIB policy should contain consequences and remedial action for filing a false HIB claim. This requirement is part of the Model Policy and NJSA 18A:37-15(b). The policy must, at a minimum, set forth the consequences of filing a false claim of harassment, intimidation, or bullying.  

  1. Students. The policy should set forth the consequences and type of remedial action that a student will face for false accusations of HIB. 
  2. School Employees. The school district should adopt a policy on false HIB allegations by staff.  

Parental Rights During Investigation 

Parents of students accused of bullying are entitled to information on the investigation, but they may not be able to see all materials. Because of privacy concerns, the school district is not obligated to provide parents with a copy of the investigation report or other privileged information. But you are entitled to know the nature of the allegations and to respond.  

Concerning some allegations, you may need to present information to the administration or the board concerning the basic definition and characteristics of bullying. You have a right to request a Hearing before the Board of Education (BOE), and you have a right to counsel.  

Navigating the HIB Disciplinary Process  

The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team will be able to:  

  • Inform and advise you on the nature of HIB claims against your student.  
  • Investigate the allegations and correct any misunderstandings or inaccuracies. 
  • Represent your student's interests at the Hearing, if necessary.  
  • Allow your student to tell their side of the story.  
  • Educate the Board concerning distinctions between normal conflict and bullying.  
  • Negotiate with the school to end or reduce the discipline to the greatest extent possible and to protect your student's privacy. 
  • Advise and assist with the appeals process, if necessary.  
  • Act to protect your child's reputation and future and to achieve the best possible outcome.  

Contact the Lento Law Firm Regarding HIB Allegations 

The Lento Law Firm can represent and advise you regarding allegations of bullying, harassment, or other Code of Conduct violations. The Firm can also defend against juvenile charges arising from bullying allegations if necessary. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team provides uncompromising, effective representation to get the best possible outcome for NJ students. Call 888.535.3686 or provide your details online, and we will contact you.  

​​​Contact The Lento Law Firm Today

When it comes to criminal defense cases, you need the right person in your corner. To learn more about how Mr. Lento can help you, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. or contact him online.

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