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Understanding Bullying

What is Bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Types of Bullying

Verbal - speaking or writing mean things

  • Teasing
  • Name-calling
  • Inappropriate sexual comments
  • Taunting
  • Threatening to cause harm

Social bullying (Relational bullying) - hurting someone’s reputation or relationships

  • Leaving someone out on purpose
  • Telling other children not to be friends with someone
  • Spreading rumors about someone
  • Embarrassing someone in public

Physical bullying - hurting a person’s body or possessions

  • Hitting/kicking/pinching
  • Spitting
  • Tripping/pushing
  • Taking or breaking someone’s things
  • Making mean or rude hand gestures

Types of bullying information from

Defined in Iowa Law

Harassment and bullying are defined in Iowa Code 280.28 as: Any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct toward a student which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment that meets one or more of the following conditions:

  • Places the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or property
  • Has a substantially detrimental effect on the student's physical or mental health
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student's academic performance
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with the student's ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school

There are 17 protected traits or characteristics in the law. "Trait or characteristic of the student" includes but is not limited to age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, or familial status.

Bullying is not...

Conflict is not Bullying. A conflict is a disagreement or antagonism between two or more people. All parties involved have some responsibility for the encounter. It is not bullying when two or more kids with no perceived power imbalance, fight, have an argument or disagree. Conflict resolution strategies can be employed to find common ground when both parties have a vested interest in resolving the conflict. Peer mediation may be appropriate in conflict situations. Bullying is peer abuse and needs to be reported and treated as such. Peer mediation is not appropriate in bullying.

The difficulty is knowing when a situation is conflict and when it is relational or social bullying. Relational bullying occurs within social groups of “friends.” It is critical for educators to seek to understand when “friend” behaviors that might have been conflicts turn into bullying. Be careful to:

  • Understand the characteristics of relational bullying
  • Educate all staff, students and parents about relational bullying
  • When bullying is reported, never bring those involved together for the interview, do not intervene and treat the report as a conflict without first investigating and ensuring bullying is not occurring.

What works in Addressing Bullying?


The following activities can help teachers build and sustain a safe, secure classroom environment:

  • Develop, post, and discuss rules and sanctions related to bullying.
  • Treat students and each other with warmth and respect. Demonstrate positive interest and involvement in your students.
  • Establish yourself as a clear and visible authority with responsibility for making the school experience safe and positive.
  • Reward students for positive, inclusive behavior.
  • Take immediate action when bullying is observed and consistently use nonphysical, non-hostile negative consequences when rules are broken.
  • Listen to parents and students who report bullying in your classroom. Quickly and effectively resolve the issue to avoid perpetuation of bullying behaviors.
  • Notify parents of all involved students when a bullying incident occurs, and resolve the problem expeditiously, according to discipline plans at school.
  • Refer students affected by bullying to school counseling or mental health staff, if needed.
  • Protect students who are bullied with a safety plan.
  • Hold class meetings during which students can talk about bullying and peer relations.
  • Provide information to parents about bullying behaviors and encourage their involvement and support in addressing bullying issues.

Parents and Families

Standing up to peers is a hard thing to do for people of all ages. But you can make it easier for kids by giving them the confidence and the support they need to do so. The following list from National Crime Prevention Council website are some ways parents and families can help children develop these traits:

  • Teach children to be assertive. Emphasize peaceful ways to solve problems and encourage kids to stand up for themselves verbally, not violently.
  • Show kids safe ways to help others. Make it clear that you expect kids to take action if they see someone being hurt, or if they are hurt themselves.
  • Hold kids accountable. If children stand by and watch someone being bullied, make it clear that their behavior hurts the victim too.
  • Get to know their friends. Encourage your children to invite their friends to your home or accompany you on family outings.
  • Be a good example. If you see someone being bullied or hurt, help them.
  • Build empathy in your kids. If you see examples of people being bullied or hurt in movies, television, or books, talk with your children about how these people must feel. Ask your children how they would feel in that situation and what they would do to make it better. Point out ways characters helped out, or didn’t, and have your children think up different ways to help.
  • Help them develop social skills. From a young age, encourage your children to play with others and to be friends with many different people. Have them spend time with people of different ages, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and mental and physical abilities.
Reporting Bullying to Schools - Assistance for Parents/Families

When bullying occurs, contact the school immediately and join with the district in gathering information and conducting an inquiry and/or investigation to ensure any bullying is stopped. Here are some resources that parents may find helpful in this effort.

  1. Guidelines for Parents in Reporting Bullying
  2. Worksheet for Parents in Reporting Bullying
  3. Parent Checklist in Reporting Bullying
  4. Types of Bullying
  5. Support for Bullying Issues: Websites for Parents


School administrators have the opportunity to address school bullying on all levels of a student's experience. By leading the school or district in bullying prevention efforts, administrators can help create a safer, more positive learning environment. The following are a few things school administrators can do:

  1. Focus on the social environment of the school.
  2. Assess bullying at your school.
  3. Garner staff and parent support for bullying prevention.
  4. Form a group to coordinate the school's bullying prevention activities.
  5. Train your staff in bullying prevention.
  6. Establish and enforce school rules and policies related to bullying.
  7. Increase adult supervision in hot spots where bullying occurs.
  8. Intervene consistently and appropriately in bullying situations.
  9. Focus some class time on bullying prevention.
  10. Continue these efforts over time.
What does not work to address Bullying?
MisdirectionWhy it’s not recommended
Zero Tolerance
  • Unrealistic and disruptive, given the numbers of students involved in bullying.
  • Doesn’t allow for intervention or consequences that teach and reinforce new skills.
  • Lack of supervision for students at home on suspension or expulsion.
  • Severe punishments can deter reporting.
  • We want to meet the needs of all students.
Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation
  • Implies both parties bear responsibility.
  • May further victimize the target.
  • Bullying is abuse, not another problem behavior.
Group Therapeutic Treatment
  • Group members may model inappropriate behavior.
  • Can reinforce bullying behavior.
Overstating or simplifying the relationship between bullying and suicide

Using words like bullycide or bullied to death, or reading books/viewing videos that depict suicides by bullied students are not recommended because:

  • It suggests that bullying may be caused by only one factor
  • It increases the risk of suicide contagion and communicates to bullied students that suicide is an option to solve the problem
  • Diminishes the fact that while some kids are seriously harmed and a small number do take their own lives, most students will bounce back from cruelty at the hands of other kids. They’ll remember being bullied or being a bully and will have learned something useful, even though painful.
Simple, short-term solutions
  • One shot assemblies or speakers are unlikely to reduce bullying problems and often make bullying problems worse.
  • One-time staff trainings do not give staff the tools they need to effectively prevent and respond to bullying.
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Iowa Code 280.28(3) and Iowa Administrative Code 281-12.3(13) require school districts and accredited nonpublic schools to have policies against harassment and bullying, complaint forms and investigative procedures in place.

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Professional Development Resources

Bullying Checklist - District (2-13-24) - Document designed to assist schools in meeting their obligation to respond to bullying allegations in a prompt, thorough, and effective manner.

Bullying and Harassment Investigation Training for Schools - A module located on the AEA PD Online Learning System was created by the Department and Iowa Safe Schools Academy to provide guidance on investigating bullying and harassment incidents in schools. Users must be registered within the AEA PD Online System to see the module.

Pre-Investigation Student Safety Plan

Post-Investigation Safety Plan

Sample Policy, Forms and Investigation Procedures - The following resources were developed by the Department and the Iowa Association of School Boards:

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Data Reporting

Public and accredited nonpublic schools are required to submit bullying and harassment data to the Department.

All incidents meeting one or more of the following criteria, provided by Iowa’s anti-bullying/harassment law, must be reported: 

  • Conduct placed the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or property
  • Conduct had a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical and mental health 
  • Conduct had the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s academic performance 
  • Conduct had the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from services, activities, or privileges provided by the school 

Bullying Data

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Intradistrict Transfer Request Form

Intradistrict Transfer Request Form - To be used by a parent or guardian when notifying the school district that they intend to enroll the student in another attendance center within the same school district after the school district determines that any student enrolled in the school district has harassed or bullied the student. (Iowa Code 279.82)

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Open enrollment due to bullying and harassment

Students who open enroll in grades nine through 12 are not eligible to participate in varsity competitions during the first 90 school days of transfer (not counting summer school). However, any student will be immediately eligible for varsity athletic competitions if the resident district has determined that the student exercising open enrollment was subject to a founded incident of harassment or bullying as defined by Iowa Code 280.28. For a full list of exceptions to this rule, see Iowa Administrative Code 281-36.15(4).

Guidance on Varsity Athletic Eligibility of Students Open Enrolling due to Bullying and Harassment

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