Early warning signs of violence often overlooked, study finds

June 07, 1999

ATHENS, Ohio -- Many teachers and counselors often overreact to one-time, physical confrontations between kids and overlook nonviolent behaviors that can cause even more damaging, long-term emotional and social problems.

There's a natural and logical tendency to react strongly to a schoolyard fight, but such an incident may not signal the sort of emotional distress experts believe triggered many of the recent school shootings across the country, says Richard Hazler, professor of counseling education at Ohio University and author of a new study on bullying behaviors.

"When are children just playing and when should an adult intervene?" Hazler says. "It's difficult for even the most experienced professionals to figure out for any individual situation whether to take strong action or to let the kids settle it themselves."

Labeling all playground clashes as bullying behavior is a common mistake, Hazler says. But in fact, bullying is defined as repeated harmful acts of physical, verbal or social abuse and confrontations that involve unfair matches between children.

Hazler surveyed 251 teachers and counselors in Ohio to assess their understanding of bullying and non-bullying behaviors. Participants were given 21 scenarios of different emotional and physical confrontations between kids and asked to identify which were bullying situations. The study was presented at the American Counseling Association World Conference in April.

Most participants -- between 50 percent and 80 percent, depending on the individual scenario -- labeled non-bullying situations as bullying, suggesting that professionals are not clear about which situations they should react to and how they should react.

One resulting complication is that people are "less likely to show concern, attempt to prevent or act to intervene in situations involving potential social or verbal harm while they are more likely to overreact in situations involving potential physical harm," Hazler says.

"This appears to be just the type of mistake that allowed the young gunmen in recent school shootings or many youth who attempt suicide who have their own struggles with peer harassment to go under-attended to for months or years."

In the study, more than 90 percent of participants incorrectly identified the following scenario as a bullying situation:

Jackie came home with a ripped shirt, a bruised cheek, and scrapes on her arms. Her mom was both scared and furious at the same time. She sent her daughter off to a safe school and this is not what she expected to come home from such a place.

Jackie explains that a bigger kid she hardly knew punched her, "for no reason, Mom. I bumped into her on the playground and she said I did it on purpose. Then she hit me, threw me down and stood over me."

Teachers and counselors may be inclined to respond more strongly to these one-time fights, only to discover the skirmishes were caused by nothing more than normal flares of temper with minimal to no long-range negative effects.

"Overall, adults are spending a lot of time and energy on one-time physical confrontations when much more damage often results for the children involved in abuse that goes on over time," Hazler says. "Parents and teachers need to spend more time with children -- go to their ball games and observe them in school hallways -- and when a confrontation occurs, adults should watch for repeated physical, emotional or social scenarios."

Adults also should pay close attention to children on the receiving end of name-calling and teasing and be more aware of signs such as a withdrawal from friends and a regular lack of eye contact with peers and adults -- all of which experts believe preceded recent school violence in Colorado, Arkansas, Kentucky and elsewhere. These indicators of emotional distress are harder to detect and easier to dismiss than more outward displays of violent behavior, says Hazler, who has studied child bullying and victimization for 12 years.

"If people aren't recognizing emotional abuse as bullying, these things build up within children and can lead to an explosion of violence as a means of being heard or retaliation in what feels to them like a hopeless situation," he says. "One of the problems children complain about is that adults do not intervene in most non-physical bullying situations, and these are the situations that often produce the most long-range damaging effects on children because they are not recognized and handled as firmly and directly as physical situations."

Hazler compares adults' lack of intervention in bullying situations to students who become frustrated when they don't understand class material: They become disheartened and give up. Once that happens, Hazler says, troubled children are likely to take life-threatening actions either toward others or themselves.

Hazler has given workshops within schools across the country to help adults recognize the difference between bullying and non-bullying situations and what intervention methods to use in prevention of school violence.

"What really counts is what goes on inside of a person," Hazler says. "And, from a child's eyes, continuing emotional and social abuse by peers are the most damaging."

Study co-authors included Suzy Green, an Ohio University assistant professor of educational studies; Dina Miller, a graduate student in education at Ohio University; and JoLynn Carney, assistant professor of counseling at Youngstown State University. Hazler and Green hold appointments in the College of Education at Ohio University.

Contact: Richard Hazler, 740-593-4461; hazler@ohio.edu

Attention editors, reporters: The conference presentation on which this story is based is available by calling Kelli Whitlock at 740-593-2868 or Danielle Harley at 740-593-0946.

Ohio University

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