Skip to main content

Bullying and Harassment

On this page...

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.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. - 2014 US Department of Education office of Safe Schools

In his writings, Dr. Dan Olweus, creator of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, is very clear that bullying is peer abuse that should not be tolerated.

Types of Bullying - Taken from

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

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 interested 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
  • Make sure you are addressing social and emotional development for all students
  • 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 from the Violence Prevention Works website 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

Parents and families play a central role to preventing bullying and stopping it when it happens. The following list from National Crime Prevention Council website are a few things parents and families can do:

  • Teach kids to solve problems without using violence and praise them when they do.
  • Give children positive feedback when they behave well to help their build self-esteem. Help give them the self-confidence to stand up for what they believe in.
  • Ask your children about their day and listen to them talk about school, social events, their classmates, and any problems they have.
  • Take bullying seriously. Many kids are embarrassed to say they have been bullied. You may only have one chance to step in and help.
  • If you see any bullying, stop it right away, even if your child is the one doing the bullying.
  • Encourage your child to help others who need it.
  • Don't bully your children or bully others in front of them. Many times kids who are bullied at home react by bullying other kids. If your children see you hit, ridicule, or gossip about someone else, they are also more likely to do so themselves.
  • Support bully prevention programs in your child's school. If your school doesn't have one, consider starting one with other parents, teachers, and concerned adults.

Help your child deal with bullying by talking to teachers, administrators, and staff. The following PDF files give more information:

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 assure 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
  6. Safety Plan When Bullying is Reported
  7. Safety Plan When Bullying is Confirmed


School administrators have the opportunity to address school bullying on all levels of a student's experience. By leading school or district in bullying prevention efforts, administrators can help create a safer, more positive learning environment. The following is a list of Ten Tips for Administrators to Address Bullying in School is from the Violence Prevention Works website:

  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?

Misdirection Why 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.

Legal Requirements

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.

Professional Development Resources

Bullying Checklist - District (6-28-21) - 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.

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

Federal Dear Colleague Letters regarding Bulling and Harassment

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

AEA Support Network

Iowa AEAs and some school districts have trained specialists in bullying prevention and intervention. Each staff member listed on the Olweus Trainer/Consultants page linked below  has been trained in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (pronounced Ol-VAY-us). Olweus is a comprehensive approach that includes schoolwide, classroom, individual and community components. The program is focused on long-term change that creates a safe and positive school climate. It is designed and evaluated for use in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools (K-12). The program’s goals are to reduce and prevent bullying among schoolchildren and to improve peer relations at school. Olweus programming materials and resources are available through Violence Prevention Works.

Iowa Olweus Trainer/Consultants

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


Bullying/Harassment Video and Resources - Videos and resources on best practices in bullying prevention. - The official U.S. Government website for information regarding Bullying is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Cyberbullying: Doing Something about It, Lawfully - Addresses the legal aspects of cyberbullying. The document addresses when a school may discipline the cyberbully. More importantly, the document discusses steps that must be taken by school officials even in situations where the school cannot lawfully punish the cyberbully.

Best Practices in Bullying Prevention Programs - Ten components and further descriptors to help you evaluate any bullying prevention programs.

Analyzing Existing Bullying Behaviors
The Olweus program includes the administration and follow-up of a data tool called the BVQ. (Bully, Victim Questionnaire) Questions on the Iowa Youth Survey regarding bullying and harassment are closely aligned with the BVQ. See your AEA Olweus Trainer for more information regarding the BVQ.

A Parents' Guide to Facebook - Designed to teach parents how to help their teens strengthen their privacy and safety on Facebook, the guide features important topics such as risks involved in social networking, how to parent Facebook users, managing reputation in the digital age, managing your privacy on Facebook, reporting problems and more. The guidebook is published in partnership with the iKeepSafe Coalition.

What we know about Bullying Tip Sheet

Warning signs that a child is being Bullied Tip Sheet

How to Talk with Educators at Your Childs School About Bullying: Tips for Parents of Bullied Children

Children who Bully others Tip Sheet

Bullying and Children with Disabilities Tip Sheet

Bullying and Sexual Orientation Tip Sheet

Best Practices in Bullying Prevention Tip Sheet

Protecting your Child from Electronic Aggression

Electronic Aggression Brief from the Center for Disease Control

Bullying Fact Sheet from Centers for Disease Control

Misdirections in Bullying Prevention and Intervention

Myths About Bullying

Preventing Child and Youth Sexual Violence: A Resource for Iowa Families - The term "sexual violence" is used to describe violence against someone that is sexual in nature. It may include behaviors that are physical, verbal, or visual. There are three different types of sexual violence described in this document, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. This document provides general information and resources to help parents and families understand, recognize, and respond to sexual violence of their child or youth. Resources are organized into groups to ensure age appropriateness.