Bullying 101: A parent’s guide

The word “bully” has been defined in every schoolyard, in every state in America, throughout the entire history of formal education.  Even decades ago, there were bullies who made fun of and teased others; bullies who profited off of stealing lunch money from underdeveloped classmates; and even bullies who made you give them your homework so he/she wouldn’t get a homework detention.  Unfortunately, most of us have had to deal with a bully at some point in our lives while others may have been the bullies themselves.  But with the evolution of technology expanding each and every minute, bullying has become a serious problem among our adolescents and, in turn, throughout our schools.  It is extremely important that parents realize that bullies and the act of bullying have completely changed since they were in the schoolyard.

While “back in the day” one could escape the clutches of bullies and deal only with repercussions in a minimal fashion by ignoring the problem, today’s adolescent is caught within a globalized atmosphere of technological vehicles that make escape almost impossible.  Texting; Instagram; video cameras on phones; the Internet; Facebook; and other social media sites and applications can expand a bullying “act” within seconds to hundreds (or even thousands) of people.  What’s worse is that through globalized media, even people not familiar with a situation who may live completely on the other side of the world can interact and take part in bullying due to social media strands – and again, this can all take place within several minutes.

It is a rare thing now for bullying to exist without some connection to social media devices.  When the act occurs, it is publicized to friends and acquaintances via social media sites, who then “post-and-pass it on” to other people and other sites, in what seems to become a bullying “free-for-all.”  By the time adults, school administrators, teachers, and parents can get involved in the original conflict, the story has grown, the rumors have spread and the damage is done.  As a parent, you need to act – and act fast.

So first, how do we currently define bullying?  How can we identify whether or not our child is having a true bullying issue?  Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. Usually, the behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time; however, the act of bullying can also be a one-time action.  School districts across America have gone on to expand the definition, and parents should contact their local district and request a copy of the district policy so as to be familiar with the tenets of harassment, intimidation, and bullying as defined by their local education agency.  Regardless of where you live, the perceived power imbalance connected to harassment and bullying usually includes a child or young adolescent who is connected with (or part of) a protected group/class of people.  This includes color, race, creed, and specific disability.  In schools, administrators walk a thin line when determining what actions by students are considered infractions of the district disciplinary code of conduct versus bullying.  In fact, it is easy to confuse a disciplinary action with an act perceived as bullying.  Let’s take a common scenario.  Johnny and Jimmy are playing ball in the schoolyard and tensions begin to rise when Johnny hits Jimmy in the head with a soccer ball.  Both boys confront each other, and Johnny says, “Watch where you’re walking, stupid.”  The boys begin to push one another, and a back-and-forth exchange of words ensues.  A lunch monitor quickly diffuses the altercation and escorts both boys to the assistant principal to mediate the situation and levy discipline as warranted.  This situation as it stands is an infraction of the school’s code of conduct, not bullying.  Now let’s change the scenario.  Johnny and Jimmy are in the school yard kicking around the soccer ball with some friends.  “Hey keep the ball away from Jimmy,” Johnny says to several other boys in the yard.  “He’s stupid and has to take special classes.”  This isn’t the first time that Johnny has exhibited an imbalance of power to Jimmy because of his protected class.  In other words, Johnny is making fun of Jimmy because he is a student with special needs and calls him “stupid” as part of this disability.  Here, the definition of bullying applies.    

In this scenario, your child’s school administration and anti-bullying specialists would quickly become involved to take care of the issue at hand.  Interviews would take place, and the “bully” in this case (Johnny) would most likely be disciplined but more importantly would receive some type of individual counseling to both point out and remediate the wrongdoing.  Some schools may have students sign contracts as promises or utilize other methods to mediate the situation.  Some promises even include students staying away from one another and/or not talking to one another for a specific length of time.  School administrators and administrative team members are trained in these areas and are extremely effective when each child is cooperative and parents are involved in supporting the outcome.

So, what happens when you are home?  The situation occurs or continues online, or via texting, or as part of an instant picture.  School administrators only need to involve themselves with situations of potential or perceived bullying that have a direct impact on the educational program of the school or will disrupt the educational process throughout the school day.  Let’s face it – that’s usually every case where the name-calling and cyber-bullying at home, after school hours, carries on and into school the very next day.  Just remember, now the one or two people involved becomes 20, or 200, or more.  It is time to play your part and help begin to rectify this situation.  First (and this is important), don’t wait for your child to ask you for help.  Instead, be a parent and monitor what is happening with your child.  Although you must still involve your local school administrators in the argument, be sure you also consider doing the following to help the process move along:

  • Immediately remove your son/daughter from the social media device and ensure that they are not responding to comments made by other students.  Adolescents want your child to respond and become part of the “fray.” 
  • Make sure you copy or take a screen shot of everything that is transcribed.  This will give you a running record of the conversation outline as it occurs and can also be used to prove that your son/daughter has refrained from making any return or retaliating comments after you spoke with him/her and removed him/her from the device or site.
  • Inform your school administration about the harassing conversation/remarks that include other students as well.  Try and identify as many students as possible to help the anti-bullying team and/or administration mediate among all parties involved.  If the remarks are threatening or relate to bodily harm, property damage, or some other form of threat that is completely inappropriate, visit your local police department and file a report of the incident, making sure that you have the officer write down specific information, sites used, screen names, etc.  This is not a complaint; rather, it is a report that is placed on file in case you decide to make a complaint later in the mediation process.  Sometimes, the report acts as a deterrent, and that student involved understands the seriousness of his/her actions.  It is important that he/she realizes that you mean business.
  • Contact other parents.  The effects of bullying on children can be extremely serious.  If you have the ability to dialogue with the other parents involved, then this is a plus.  This usually becomes a last or later resort, however, since school officials are usually acting as mediator between both sets of parents.  Regardless, this is your child who is in distress so utilize all of your viable resources.

Continue to monitor the situation and remain positive.  You may need to repeat these steps several times until you reach the necessary outcome; however, this situation may rectify itself, and it is not uncommon for students involved in a harassment or bullying claim to be friends once again as life moves by too quickly.  So mom and dad, you never know – one day “down the road” you just might find yourselves by the pool serving a hamburger to the bully who you and your daughter lost weeks of sleep over.    

Richard D. Tomko, Ph.D.


Dr. Tomko has had numerous administrative responsibilities since he first chose education as a career after college.  He has been a building administrator at the middle and secondary levels and responsible for district-wide curriculum, program, and professional development while in central office positions. He began his tenure in the Elmwood Park Public Schools District as Memorial Middle School Principal in 2002 and after only one year, Dr. Tomko was asked to assume the position of principal of Memorial High School.  He was instrumental in re-arranging the secondary curriculum, ensuring that courses were aligned with assessments.  He also began to study the achievement gaps between learners and the transition of students from 8th to 9th grade, making changes to programs and personnel to help students be successful in their classes.  After two years, Dr. Tomko then served as principal of both the middle and high schools to help improve the continuity of programs in district, 6-12.  During the 2009-2010 school year, Dr. Tomko was appointed Interim Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and Memorial High School Principal, and beginning July 1, 2010 he began serving as Superintendent of Schools for the school district.  As Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Tomko continued to raise student aptitude; challenge students with a more rigorous curriculum; evaluate teachers and administrators more thoroughly; and responded fiscally by making an immediate $2.2 million budget cut to offset expenditures and remove the district deficit, restoring financial stability.  New programs implemented immediately after his appointment led to major increases in SAT and Advanced Placement scores, as well as increases in score assessments for the Special Education subgroup, which helped lessen the achievement gap.  Prior to his arrival in Elmwood Park, Dr. Tomko served past districts in administrative positions such as department supervisor, assistant principal, and director of athletics.  He began his career in education teaching high school science and middle and high school English in both private and public school systems. 

Dr. Tomko obtained his principal license and school administrator certificate after earning his Masters Degree in Educational Administration (M.A.E.), and he has attained the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) with a concentration in Higher Educational Leadership, Management, and Policy from Seton Hall University.  Dr. Tomko has also earned a graduate certificate in Community and Economic Development from The Pennsylvania State University and a certificate in Leadership for his professional studies at Harvard University. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of English Composition and English Basic Skills at a local college, an adjunct professor in the educational leadership graduate program at Manhattan College, and mentors newly appointed administrators statewide for licensure through the New Jersey Department of Education.

Dr. Tomko continues to research the "expectations gap" and lack of articulation between secondary schools and institutions of higher education with the hope of improving student readiness for post-secondary instruction.  Past formal research endeavors have included student achievement gaps on statewide assessments; guidance and counseling influence on student application to post-secondary education; student perceptions of remedial English; and student readiness for college.  Dr. Tomko is a change agent for creativity and problem-solving and works with his administrative teams to decrease achievement gaps between demographic subgroups of learners.  He is married, has four young children, and dedicates his spare time volunteering as a coach for local recreation sports teams and the Boy Scouts of America.

He is currently the Superintendent of Schools in the Elmwood Park Public Schools District, Elmwood Park, N.J.