WHAT IS BULLYING?
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE STATUTORY DEFINITION OF "HIB" AND THE RESEARCH-BASED DEFINITION OF "CLASSICAL BULLYING"
Note: This page is the gateway to a technical discussion of scientific, classical, and applied definitions vs New Jersey statutory definitions of bullying and for discussions of implementation issues pertaining to New Jersey law; if you are looking for a basic definition of bullying, or basic information about bullying, click here

Differences between Statutory "HIB" and "Classical Bullying."

The statutory definition of "Harassment, Intimidation, or Bullying" (HIB) in the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR) is different from the definition of "bullying" on which evidence-based practices are based. In other words, "statutory HIB" is not the same as "classical bullying." The two definitions are not mutually exclusive; they do overlap, such that there are are behaviors that fit both definitions. However, there are also behaviors that are "bullying" in the eyes of anti-bullying experts, but not "HIB" under the law, and there are behaviors that are "HIB" under the law, but are not the types of behaviors that evidence-based anti-bullying practices can effectively address. This creates a great deal of confusion, because legal advice and evidence-based expert advice really apply to different sets of behaviors.

Click on the blue titles below to view different definitions of bullying, and to find a table that shows the differences between the evidence-based scientific definition of bullying and the New Jersey statutory definition of HIB.

Although it might seem that the way to reduce confusion would be to bring the statutory definition of HIB into line with the classical definition of bullying, this would involve adding criteria like "power imbalance" and "one-sidedness" to the statutory definition. For a variety of reasons, this type of legislative change would undercut the ability of the ABR to protect students. A discussion of these issues is outside the scope of this website, although interested readers are referred to the page on Power Imbalance, the page on Conflict vs. Bullying, the page on Intent vs. Impact, and the page on "Distinguishing Characteristics," for discussions of these specific differences between statutory and classical definitions, and may contact Spectrum Diversity to request a copy of the working paper "Falling Apples," in which these issues are discussed in detail.

ABR Statutory Definition of HIB Click here for information

The wording of N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14 is as follows:

"Harassment, intimidation or bullying" means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:

  1. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
  2. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
  3. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student's education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.
NJ DOE Description of Conflict vs Bullying Click here for information

In the Guidance document issued by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJ DOE) in 2011, the Introduction provides an overview in which bullying is defined.  The guidance document first provides a bulleted recitation of the statutory language in N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14 and then, on the next page (p.3), offers this explanation:

Bullying vs. Conflict – Bullying is not a phase young people must endure or outgrow.  Bullying is not a conflict between students or among groups of students.  Conflict is a mutually competitive or opposing action or engagement, including a disagreement, an argument or a fight which is a normal part of human development.  Bullying is one-sided, where one or more students are victims of one or more person’s aggression, which is intended to physically or emotionally hurt the victim(s).

CDC/US DOE "Federal Definition of Bullying" Click here for information

The “Uniform Definition” of bullying, published in 2014 by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United States Department of Education (US DOE), is a scientific definition of bullying that has emerged from decades of research on bullying.  It reflects a degree of consensus among researchers over the elements that define “bullying” for the purpose of the collection of data on bullying:  

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.  Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.” (2014:7)

Although different researchers have used a variety of different definitions of “bullying” in their research on bullying, this CDC definition brings together many of the most common criteria used by researchers to define bullying for the purpose of research.   It is this research that has given rise to the knowledge we have about “evidence-based practices” in bullying prevention. 

Comparison of the Scientific/Classical Definition of Bullying with the Statutory Definition of HIB: Chart Form Click here for information

Scientific or Classical Definition of “Bullying”

Statutory Definition of “HIB” (N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14)

Similarities between the Scientific Definition of “Bullying” and Statutory “HIB”

Harmful Behavior:  “May inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”  Standard is not actual harm, but possibility of harm. 

Harmful Behavior: “A reasonable person should know, . . . under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm . . . or damage . . .; [or] has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or creates a hostile educational environment.”  Standard is not actual harm, but reasonable expectation (“will have”) of harm.

Criteria Included in the Scientific Definition of “Bullying” that are Not Explicitly Included in the Statutory Definition of “HIB”

“unwanted”

No mention of consent of the target as a criterion; standard is the perception of a “reasonable person” regarding potential for specific harmful impacts

Aggressive

No mention of “aggressiveness” of the actor; statute mentions reasonable person’s assessment of the “effect” including “fear”

Power Imbalance.

No mention of power imbalance

Repeated or likely to be repeated

Specifically states that HIB might be a “single incident or a series of incidents”

Intent to Harm

No mention of intent; “reasonable” expectation of impact is the standard

Unprovoked

No mention of provocation as an excluding criterion; only reference to causality is reference to “motivating characteristics”

One-sided, i.e., not reciprocal.  One party is hurting the other, and not vice versa

No mention of reciprocity as a contra-indication, no requirement that the target be blameless or the interaction one-sided, no requirement that the target has never retaliated

Criteria Included in the Statutory Definition of HIB that are Not Explicitly Included in the Scientific Definition of “Bullying”

No requirement that the behavior be “motivated” by a “characteristic” of the target.

“Reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic such as race…or by any other distinguishing characteristic”

No restriction as to where the behavior occurs

“Takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds…”

No reference to impact on the social environment (school) except insofar as it might cause educational harm to the target.

“substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students”

The Three Most Important Differences between Scientific/Classical Bullying and Statutory HIB Click here for information

The three most consequential differences between the scientific and the statutory definitions of bullying are:

  1. The scientific definition includes a “power imbalance” criterion whereas the statutory definition of HIB does not.
  2. The classical definition of bullying characterizes it as "one-sided," in contrast to conflict which is "mutual," but there is no such distinction or criterion in the statutory definition of HIB
  3. The statutory definition includes the “motivated by” a “distinguishing characteristic” criterion, which is not part of the classical or scientific definitions of bullying.

Incidents that fit one or two, but not all three, of these three criteria, might be “bullying” but not “HIB,” or might be “HIB,” but not “bullying.” 

Graphic Showing Overlap of HIB with bullying

How Can Schools Merge Evidence-Based Strategies with Statutory Compliance, if the Scientific/Classical and Statutory Definitions are Inconsistent with Each Other? Click here for information

The short answer is, the statutory definition should be used to determine whether an incident should be reported and investigated following the procedures outlined in the ABR and district policies, whereas the classical definition should be used to determine what types of responses are most likely to be effective at resolving the situation in question.  More specific strategies are included in professional development training programs.