Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series about bullying in local middle schools. This article tackles the definition of bullying, what causes it to be prevalent in middle school, and how it has evolved in recent years. The next article will discuss how local schools attempt to prevent bullying and how they handle the victims and bullies.

In a 2017 statewide survey, nearly 69 percent of eighth-graders in Deschutes County said they had not been bullied. And despite bullying becoming more public due to social media and increased parental awareness, Bend-La Pine’s executive director of middle schools, Jim Boen, said bullying isn’t as bad as some people believe.

“I think some people try to make it a big issue, but I don’t think that’s a big issue in Bend-La Pine schools,” he said. “I think it’s a big deal for those whose child is experiencing that, but I don’t think it’s as widespread as it’s reported or it feels like.”

Many middle school counselors and administrators in Central Oregon say bullying has evolved in recent years due to changing technology, and many parents and students have the wrong idea of what bullying is. And while bullying can occur in elementary or high school, local educators agreed the unique circumstances of middle school creates a breeding ground for student conflict.

How has bullying evolved?

Bullying has changed because of the internet. High Desert Middle School counselor Lynne Tat said social media sites in particular have created an environment in which escaping negativity and bullying is much harder.

“It used to be, if somebody said something rude to you in the hallway, it was hurtful, maybe a handful of kids heard it, and that was embarrassing, but it was over,” she said. “Now, a mean thing is said on social media, and you can’t get away from it.”

Tat said she believes that student behavior hasn’t changed much, it’s just that online comments by bullies are more permanent and more public.

Furthermore, social media is comparative by nature, where everyone’s perfectly curated profile can cause jealousy, anxiety and low self-esteem, she said.

Counselors and administrators are having a difficult time teaching kids to navigate social media. “We haven’t even figured it out yet, which makes it challenging to share our expertise and our knowledge with young people,” she said.

Tat said physical bullying is “definitely on the decline” at her school, and Pacific Crest Middle School counselor Ashlee Davis claims it isn’t a factor at Pacific Crest.

“I’ve been here for four years, and I can honestly say, never once have I heard of or know of your old-fashioned, getting-put-in-lockers bullying. That stuff isn’t happening,” she said. “What we see more of is kids not being nice to each other.”

Another aspect of bullying that’s changed is its increased exposure, which is different from 50 years ago, when bullying wasn’t on adults’ radar, Tat said.

“I think adult perception of bullying has also changed, so while it might seem like it’s upticked, I think part of that is due to awareness and being actively involved,” she said.

What exactly is bullying?

According to local middle school administrators and counselors, the term “bullying” has become overused and sometimes used incorrectly.

“That word ‘bullying’ gets used a lot. It does happen, but I wouldn’t say it’s as pervasive as it is thought to be,” Davis said. “Whenever you dig into it, a lot of times, it’s two kids being mean to each other, and not necessarily the repetitive, targeted, position-of-power bullying.”

Boen, of the Bend-La Pine School District, said bullying has two important factors: repetition and an abuse of power. For example, if one student says something rude about another’s shirt in public, that would be mean and embarrassing, and there would be an investigation and consequences. Because it was a one-time event, it isn’t technically “bullying,” Boen said.

“There is a difference in power, but it happened one time, and it hasn’t happened again, and I have no reason to believe it would happen again,” he said. “And yet, I still follow up and investigate to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Boen said bullying has a specific definition in Oregon law that the district follows. State law defines “harassment, intimidation or bullying” as any act that:

• “Substantially interferes” with a student’s learning environment or performance

• Takes place on or right next to school grounds, at a school-sponsored activity, on school transportation or at a school bus stop

• Physically harms a student or damages a student’s property, makes a student fearful of physical harm or creates a psychologically hostile school environment

• Might be related to the student’s “protected class” status, including race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, socioeconomic status, etc.

Why is bullying worse in middle school?

Tat, who has been a counselor at High Desert for 11 years, said bullying in middle school can be traced to the emotional and social development of students at that age.

Tat said middle schoolers’ developmental task is to try and figure out their identity, how they fit into the world and how to follow social expectations. This process can result in “messiness.”

“Trying to fit into the middle school hierarchy can be a big challenge, and it’s important to kids to have a sense of place and a sense of social power,” she said. “Nobody wants to be on the bottom of that social hierarchy, and I do think that’s where bullying can come from, that idea of ‘I don’t want to be at the bottom, so I have to make sure somebody else is underneath me.’”

Tat said middle school students are often very egocentric, even more so than adults, which makes it difficult for them to empathize with their peers.

“Everything is seen from their own perspective, and it’s not as automatic to see things from another person’s perspective,” she said.

Boen agreed, saying middle school was a tough age developmentally and that many parents have told him horror stories from their teen years. He and Tat said the rapidly shifting friend groups at that age can cause social strife, as well — in elementary school, students typically hang out in their classes, and in high school, many students are able to find their niche.

Middle school is the awkward transitional period.

“Who might be a friend today might not be tomorrow and might again be next week,” Boen said. “That’s not atypical, and that is unique to middle school.”

Tat emphasized, however, that middle schoolers are not monsters with no moral compass.

“Teenagers can be extremely empathetic and compassionate and care so much about one another,” she said. “But they have to be given opportunities to develop those skills and opportunities to show that care in a way that is socially acceptable.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com