EVERYONE KNOWS...
"BULLYING" IS DIFFERENT FROM "CONFLICT,"
RIGHT?

Note: If this is the first page you are viewing in the "Definition of Bullying" section of this website, you might also be interested in discussions of the role of intent vs. impact and of the controversial concept of "power imbalance," and if you are interested in definitions of bullying under New Jersey law, you might want to read the overview page for the ABR segment or the overview page for the "Definition of Bullying" section.

Educators and parents who are familiar with the scientific definition of bullying, or with the positive school climate approach to bullying prevention, “know” that “conflict” is different from “bullying.”  The accepted doctrine is that conflict and bullying are distinct forms of behavior, so if a behavior is conflict, it is therefore not bullying, and vice versa.  When applied to real life situations, however, this view is often overly simplistic.

What is the Difference between "Conflict" and "Bullying"?

Conflict, on the one hand, is reciprocal behavior that occurs between parties of roughly equal power or status.  In a conflict, both parties are engaged as participants, and both parties might behave in harmful or inappropriate ways.  The nature of conflict dictates that strategies like mediation and conflict resolution are appropriate responses to address conflict.  Bullying, on the other hand, is one-sided and involves a power imbalance, that is, it is hurtful/aggressive behavior perpetrated by one party against a less powerful individual who has trouble defending her/himself.  It is because bullying involves a power dynamic and is not reciprocal, that strategies like mediation and conflict resolution are inappropriate and damaging to use as responses to bullying situations.

The distinction between conflict and bullying is a useful one, but the proper use of evidence-based practices, and, in New Jersey, compliance with the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR), require that two clarifications be made:

Clarification #1: In real life, conflict and bullying not mutually exclusive, and the distinction between them is often not clear cut.  Finding “conflict” does not preclude finding “bullying.” Failure to correctly evaluate situations can lead to simplistic misclassification of incidents as either conflict, or as bullying, leading to the improper and damaging application of evidence-based strategies for addressing each type of behavior.

The definitions of “conflict” and “bullying” given above are what scientists call “ideal types.”  It is useful to make a distinction between conflict and bullying, because the two types of situations require different responses.  However, in the real world--where most of us live--the distinction between conflict and bullying is not quite so clear-cut.  When these idealized definitions are applied to actual student behavior, a) it is often not possible to tell with certainty whether a situation is conflict, or bullying, and b) some situations have elements of both conflict and bullying, or begin as one, but transform into the other. 

Examples of situations that have elements of both conflict and bullying, for the purpose of illustrating that such situations exist and are not unusual, include situations in which:

      1. A friendship ended in mutual antagonism and hurtful words, but then one part moved on while the other continued to flame the fire and recruited friends to join in the harassment;
      2. Because of a sensory disability, a child is being bothered by another child who is not behaving in a manner that would irritate most non-disabled children, and who then responds to the irritation with inappropriate aggressive behavior;
      3. A child who is tormented by another student becomes fed up and retaliates violently, starting a physical fight in which both students inflict minor injuries on the other;
      4. Both children involved feel intimidated by the other, each one not realizing that the other is also intimidated; for example, one child might be more academically capable whereas the other is more socially popular, each feels jealous of the other and expresses that jealousy in negative ways, each one not realizing that the other also feels inferior;
      5. A cultural difference caused one child to be offended by another when no offense was intended, and a fight began when the offended child accused the other of being racist, and the other child was insulted by the charge of racism.

In evaluating each of these situations, some people might argue that the situation is conflict, whereas others might argue that the situation is bullying. People on both sides of this disagreement feel that it is important to decide “which” the situation is, so that we will know how to respond to the situation, i.e., as bullying, or as conflict, because each type of situation does require a different response. However, the root of the problem is not that we disagree over whether each situation is bullying or conflict, but rather our assumption that we have to classify it as one or the other in order to respond effectively to it. 

The fact is, each situation does include elements of both conflict and bullying. Any effort to force each situation into one category or the other—bullying, or conflict—is misguided.  In each case, the best way to approach the situation from a standpoint of effectiveness is not to force it into either the “bullying” or the “conflict” category, but rather to recognize the dynamics of both bullying and conflict within the situation, and, as a result of our understanding of why different responses are effective for the two different types of behaviors, design a response to the situation that is appropriate given the mix of bullying and conflict that is occurring in the situation. Nothing whatsoever is gained by forcing a mixed bullying-conflict situation into either one category or the other, and responding to it as if it were a simple case of bullying or a simple case of conflict.  Doing so results in the inappropriate application of evidence-based responses, because it ensures that some aspects of the situation are receiving inappropriate responses that are contrary to evidence-based practices.

The relevant point here is that “conflict” and “bullying” are not mutually exclusive categories into which all incidents fit clearly.  Therefore, defining “bullying” as “not conflict,” or concluding that a situation is “not bullying” because elements of conflict have been identified in the situation, would cause some situations that do contain elements of bullying to be classified as conflict, not bullying.  The result is a loss of effectiveness, and potential harm to the students involved, when adults choose responses that are appropriate for “conflict,” but not consistent with evidence-based responses recommended for “bullying.”

Clarification #2: The statutory definition of HIB in New Jersey does not distinguish bullying from conflict; therefore, discovering that an incident involved “conflict” does not mean that it is not HIB. Misunderstanding this point could lead to failure to respond to HIB incidents in compliance with the ABR.

The distinction between conflict and bullying is part of the classical definition of bullying; it is not part of the statutory definition of HIB in New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR).  In the classical definition of bullying, the elements that distinguish bullying from conflict are “one-sidedness” and “power imbalance.”  Bullying is one-sided and involves a power imbalance, whereas conflict is mutual and involves parties with relatively equal power.  The statutory definition of HIB in the ABR contains none of these elements.  Specifically, the statute does not distinguish conflict from bullying, it does not mention one-sidedness or mutuality, and it does not define HIB as involving a power imbalance.

Therefore, finding that an incident in a school has the characteristics of a “conflict” does not lead to the conclusion that the incident was not, therefore, statutory HIB.  Even if an incident involves parties with relatively equal power, and even if both parties were engaged in mutually harmful, oppositional, or aggressive actions, the incident might still be HIB.  To determine whether an incident is HIB, school personnel must look to the statutory definition of HIB, and determine whether or not the incident meets the criteria in that statutory definition. 

If an HIB investigation leads to the conclusion that “the incident was conflict, therefore it is not bullying or HIB,” this should raise a red flag; such a comment indicates that the statutory definition of HIB has been misunderstood, and that the determination of “not HIB” might be in violation of the ABR.

Conflict vs Bullying in the NJ DOE Guidance Document (2011)

In the guidance document issued by the 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 (page 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).

The NJ DOE explanation of the distinction between bullying and conflict is an excellent explanation of the difference between bullying and conflict, and it is important that this distinction be understood, so that the reason different evidence-based responses are recommended for bullying, as opposed to conflict, can be understood.  However, the NJ DOE description—as well as the ensuing recommendations--implies that incidents involving students are easily and clearly classifiable as either conflict or bullying and that they should be so classified; i.e., that if a situation has elements of conflict that it is therefore not bullying and/or vice versa. 

Furthermore, none of the criteria used in this passage to distinguish conflict from bullying are in the statutory definition of HIB.  N.J.S.A 18A:37-14 does not say that “mutuality” in an incident precludes a finding of HIB, or that “one-sidedness” is a criterion for finding HIB.  The law does not use the word “victim,” nor does it refer to the power imbalance that is implied by the word “victim,” and it refers to the reasonable expectation of harm, not to the actor’s “aggression” or to “intent” to hurt.  However, the “conflict vs bullying” definition is provided on page 3 of the Guidance document, immediately after, and with all the appearance of being consistent with and following from, the legal definition provided on page 2.  Nowhere in the guidance document is there a discussion of the fact that these two definitions actually encompass overlapping, but different, realms of student behavior.  The guidance, therefore, strongly implies that if a situation is conflict, that it is therefore not bullying, and that it is simultaneously not HIB.  This is factually inaccurate, as the statutory definition does not distinguish conflict from bullying, and many situations that would be “conflict” by the above definition, in fact, would fit the statutory definition of HIB.

The Most Egregious Case: If We Rule Out "Bullying" Whenever We See Elements of "Conflict," We Risk Leaving Our Most Vulnerable, Victimized Students, Uprotected by the ABR.

Misunderstanding about the relationship between conflict and HIB is not a theoretical, esoteric issue.  In fact, this misunderstanding has the potential to endanger exactly those students who have already been most victimized by their peers and unprotected by their schools. 

Perhaps the most egregious case of bullying would be example (iii) described above, that is, the case in which a student has been victimized by peers seriously and repeatedly, and school personnel have not been effective in ending the bullying.  This might be because the student has not reported it, because the school did not used evidence-based responses, or because the best efforts of school personnel have been ineffective.  Eventually, the targeted student reaches the breaking point, lacks hope that adult interventions will be effective, and “takes the matter into his/her own hands” by retaliating against the tormentor. 

At this point, if the situation was not already known to school officials, it comes to the attention of school officials.  However, now the evidence available to school officials suggests a conflict, because “both students” have a “history” of antagonism toward each other, and because both were clearly involved in a “fight,” which is a type of “conflict,” not bullying.  Even though an honest investigation into the incident would reveal the history of victimization, school personnel have a structural interest in minimizing HIB reports through the EVVRS system, and the conclusion that this situation is therefore “conflict” and not “bullying” is reasonable if the distinction between the statutory and the classical definitions of bullying is not clearly understood. 

Thus, it is in exactly those situations in which a student has been most seriously victimized, and in which that student has already been least protected by their school, that a finding of “conflict,” not “bullying,” in a situation that includes elements of both conflict and bullying by the time it comes to the attention of school personnel, would be most contrary to the well-being of students and the proper use of evidence-based practices.