Cleveland Shooting Raises Question: When Is Bullying Harassment?

And what to do when it seems like no one will help? Experts encourage students to give specific examples, talk to administrators.

As long as there have been schools, there have probably been school bullies. But the latest school shooting, at Cleveland's SuccessTech Academy on Wednesday, is yet another example of how the teasing and name-calling of the past can reap violent ends in the present when outcast students who are constantly picked on attempt to exact revenge using deadly force.

From the rampage by student Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech University earlier this year to Asa Coon's shooting spree this week at SuccessTech, the common thread of bullying has experts reminding us once again that students need to not only speak up about being bullied, but raise their voices even higher to authorities about the victims when bullying seems to be pushing the bullied to the brink.

Bullying is any kind of chronic harassment, physical or mental, that causes distress for a student, including teasing, hitting or threatening, or even something seemingly more innocuous, such as rumors, manipulation or chronic exclusion from group activities, according to the National Education Association. The group warns that bullying not only hurts those who are the targets — who are hampered from learning or playing because of fear and stress — but it also hurts those doing the bullying, putting them at risk for the behavior to escalate into sexual harassment or possible criminal activity in higher grades and adulthood.

Everyone knows bullying when they see it, but when does it become harassment and what legal steps can be taken by those who are bullied? According to Derek Randel, a national speaker who lectures to parents and school administrators on bullying (and who runs the free-advice Web site StoppingSchoolViolence.com), replace the young victim with an adult and you have your answer.

"Every part of bullying is illegal," said Randel, who became an anti-bullying advocate after watching in frustration as his niece was severely bullied at her Michigan school and received no help from the administration. "If I did any of these things to you — if I took your money, that's robbery; if I hit you, that's assault." Randel said that if parents are not satisfied with how a school deals with harassment, they should talk to police, who will not likely arrest the bully, but may get involved in a way that could curtail the behavior. Similarly, cyberbullying — harassment using the Internet, cell phones or text-messaging — is a crime and could be a reason for the police to get involved.

One of the most difficult things for teachers and those who are being picked on is knowing when things have gone too far, he said. "Teachers ask students what's going on and they say, 'nothing,' so sometimes it's hard to know when it's horseplay and when it's bullying. But I give lectures where I say you can look in a child's eye and tell if it's horseplay — but if you look and they look scared to death, it's bullying."

For many students, the possibility of being harassed even further if they snitch on a bully is almost as bad as the bullying, Randel said. Many students fear retaliation, humiliation or that their parents will make a scene, but silence only benefits the bully, he said — and one of the messages he frequently gives is that you should always say something, even if it's anonymous. Many schools have ways for students to lodge anonymous complaints, and a company called AnComm even has anonymous e-mail software that allows anyone to e-mail a teacher or administrator about bullying.

Allan Beane, author of the upcoming book Protect Your Child From Bullying and the man behind the Web resource BullyFree.com, also has personal experience with the effects of bullying. He transferred his son from one grade school to another after the youngster was bullied, and then again in high school when bullying continued. He said his son was so traumatized by the bullying that he turned to drugs and died seven years ago of an overdose, which spurred Beane to speak out about bullying. "For some kids, it doesn't take too much for it to be traumatic for them," said Beane, who spoke to MTV News from Cleveland, where he was doing a training for a group of 17 charter schools on bullying. "Kids get depressed, angry, they develop eating disorders, anxiety problems and even post-traumatic stress disorder."

Beane said 30 states have passed laws requiring schools to have procedures to deal with bullying and, if that fails, parents can always file charges if their child is attacked, or even take out restraining orders against the bullies. Some states also have special district juvenile court systems where parents can file complaints.

In addition to suggesting parents take good notes on the incidents (including times, names of those involved and photos of injuries), Beane said it might help if adults avoid going to school during regular school hours to avoid being seen by the bully and possibly causing further harassment.

And, when all else fails, if the administration or other parents aren't receptive, he said, you can always talk to a lawyer and see what actions are available.