One would think kids would stop picking on each other when they get to college. Not true, said Brent Harger, assistant professor of sociology at United Methodist-related Albright College in Reading, Pa.
"Students on college campuses might not call it bullying because they think bullying is just a child's thing," Harger said. "Instead, they may refer to it as 'drama,' but no matter what label they give it, it ends up with one person constantly going out of their way to make another person miserable."
When kids are younger, meanness might be limited to calling names or stealing money, but the nastiness can escalate in college, especially when bullies use smartphones, social media, text messages, emails and instant messages to be cruel.
According to a study conducted in 2008 at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., 82 percent of students surveyed had witnessed bullying on campus. Every study participant also said bullying in college occurs at a higher rate than in high school.
Apparently, college students are not very different from seventh- and eighth-graders. Middle school is the peak time for bullying. It wanes a little in high school, but by the time kids get to college, their childhood patterns re-emerge.
"Somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea that when you graduate from high school, all your past hurts got left behind," said the Rev. Paul Clark, Albright chaplain. "They were wrong.
"What I see is students bringing old pain with them," he said. "Whether they have been bullied or are the bullier, old patterns resurface. It's a drag."
Wanting to belong
Information distributed by the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention states that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, physical condition, popularity or weight, could be targets of bullying and cyberbullying.
Reasons for bullying are what many would call petty - making fun of the shoes someone wears or the backpack they carry. Students can fuss over how peers talk, where they come from or their status - whether they are a "have" or a "have not."
When students first arrive at college, they often look for the same thing they sought in middle school - to be included, to fit in. The problem is that it takes time for them to find their niche, which may not include roommates, classmates, campus cliques or people who share the same table in the dining hall.
"It takes students longer to get together with others who are like-minded than people think," Harger said. "A student who is just starting college and doesn't know many people might put a lot of emphasis on what a roommate thinks of his or her clothing or interests. On the other hand, a student who feels like he or she is a part of a larger group is more likely to disregard comments from somebody who is not a part of that group."
Harger said the challenge is to help students make connections to feel they are part of the community. Some students may find community in Greek life or sports teams, but for others, it might be the biology club or faith-based groups.
Clark acknowledged that one of the biggest triggers for desperate behavior is loneliness. "What people really want is to belong."
Cyberbullying targets vulnerability
Part of the sensitivity problem might be something Clark calls "hyper-alienation." He has noticed that when students give themselves over to technology, it separates them from themselves and others.
"Often, students come in for counseling and put their cell phone right beside them where they can listen for its buzz and check to see who is calling," Clark said. "Their cell phone is their best friend."
Bullies also use cell phones and computers to intimidate and coerce others.
Using electronic devices and new technologies to send harmful psychological messages or threaten a person in a negative way is cyberbullying. It can range from making a full-blown physical threat to posting an embarrassing photograph.
"Cyberbullying amps up the attention paid to someone who is different," Harger said. "Bullying becomes very public, and victims may feel like the entire campus is looking at them and judging them. They become very vulnerable, even though it may not involve everyone on campus."
Adolph Brown, a master teacher and lecturer, is one of few public speakers talking about college bullying. Brown has two college-age children. His 19-year-old daughter, Maranda, attends United Methodist-related Virginia Wesleyan College. Son, Adolph, 20, attends Virginia State University.
"When students are not taught to behave consistently in a Christlike manner, that's when maladaptive behaviors become the norm," Brown said. "Character is not just important for my child, but for every child on campus. Positive behavior is contagious."
Colleges are just beginning to address students who "pick on each other" to the point of doing harm. Whether it's physical bullying (hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing and biting); verbal bullying (taunting, name-calling, threatening and belittling); or psychological bullying (spreading rumors, social exclusion, intimidation, extortion and sexual harassment), Clark said schools like United Methodist-related Albright have zero tolerance of hateful behavior toward other students.
"We just can't have that," he said. "That's not how human beings can live together. It destroys communities."
Clark, Harger and their colleagues work to find solutions to relationship problems. Albright offers everything from an early-alert process and non-violence training to spiritual direction classes and student "check-ins."
"All of the institutions in the United Methodist education connection strive to build moral and ethical character and strengthen community," said Gerald D. Lord, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "The values our colleges instill in students affect their experiences on campus as well as the rest of their lives. That's one characteristic that sets United Methodist-related colleges apart from the rest."
"We are a United Methodist college," Clark said. "I consider my place here to be crucial in bringing a spiritual presence and healing. Most of the people who seek me out are often referred to as the 'unchurched,' but people without a spiritual connection can often find it in the chaplain's office."
This story was first published on Nov. 04, 2013.
*Passi-Klaus is a writer with the Public Information Team, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
Contact: Susan Passi-Klaus, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5138 or firstname.lastname@example.org.