MORGANTOWN — Not everything is bullying.
That’s the firm belief of Buckhannon native Matt Tolliver — and also the title of his forthcoming book, “Not Everything is Bullying,” which delves into the topic of bullying, and specifically, the difference between bullying and conflict.
A 2001 graduate of Buckhannon-Upshur High School, Tolliver currently serves as a school counselor at Skyview Elementary School in Morgantown. As a certified school counselor, licensed professional counselor and former West Virginia School Counselor of the Year, he’s got plenty of personal experience with both bullying and conflict under his belt. About five years ago, Tolliver created a form he calls the Bullying/Conflict Report form. He’s found it helps him differentiate between the two issues — and consequently aids him in finding resolutions when contentious situations arise.
Tolliver, who also owns his own business, Tolliver Counseling and Consulting Services, penned “Not Everything is Bullying” primarily to help professionals develop more appropriate, effective response plans, he said in a recent interview with The Record Delta. Tolliver tentatively expects the book to be published in November.
“In my role as a school counselor, and after doing workshops with other professionals, I saw (and continue to see) a huge need for helping educate others as to what true bullying is, as opposed to conflicts,” Tolliver said. “Most importantly, it helps the person investigating/responding conceptualize a response plan.”
While conflict is an inevitable part of human growth and development that presents opportunities for learning how to effectively interact with others, bullying is a form of abuse that can lead to long-lasting, damaging consequences, such as the development of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, Tolliver explained.
So, what are some of the hallmarks of bullying compared to the trademarks of mere conflict? Tolliver has given this important difference a great deal of thought.
“True bullying situations have clear instigators and clear targets,” he said. “Conflicts, however, involve alleged victims who are, to some extent, also escalating the problem through their own behavior. True bullying situations include repeated behaviors (verbal, physical, social or electronic) by one offender toward the target.
“Conflicts are isolated and are typically unrelated to any ongoing history of conflicts between the disputants,” Tolliver continued. “True bullying involves a power difference between the instigator and the target,” such as differences in physical size, strength, popularity and influence, while conflicts don’t usually originate from a power imbalance.
Finally, bullying behaviors are carried out with intention — i.e. to embarrass, attract attention from peers or mask one’s own emotional pain, while conflicts “tend to be more random,” Tolliver said.
“Conflicts can be learning opportunities for cultivating positive relationships with other people,” he added.
Response plans should be developed based on two factors: first, whether the incident or incidents involve bullying or conflict, and second, the particular characteristics of the individuals involved, Tolliver said.
“If there were one general intervention that I would suggest, it would be focusing on empathy building,” he said. “Research has shown us that punishing offenders, especially through the use of ‘zero tolerance policies,’ are useless. Punishing offenders only makes them more angry, and often times creates a feeling of ‘revenge’ toward their target.”
In addition to encouraging his peers to craft better response plans, Tolliver also wrote “Not Everything is Bullying” to dispel what he feels is an oversimplification in print and online media sources of bullying, which has been blamed for teen suicide with increasing frequency in recent years, Tolliver said.
“I think the major contributor to this ‘word explosion’ [of bullying] is from the mainstream media’s portrayal of bullying [equals] suicide,” Tolliver said. “An internet search of the term ‘student suicide due to bullying’ leads to an overwhelming number of news articles. I have found, though, after a closer look at such articles, subtle mentions of factors which probably contributed to mental health issues for these unfortunate kids.”
Those risk factors include child abuse and related trauma; placement in foster care homes; homelessness; and elevated levels of anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness, Tolliver said.
But Tolliver wants to make one thing clear: he’s not saying bullying isn’t ever to blame in teen suicides — just that it, alone, isn’t always to blame.
“I am asserting bullying is not the sole factor in suicide,” Tolliver said. “Media, in the form of movies and television shows, has glorified bullying-related suicide, making this topic much more complex.”
And entertainment has also powerfully linked bullying to suicide, as in the 2007 novel-turned-hit-Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” starring Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker and Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen. Based on the novel by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons Why” the series tells the story of Hannah, who details on 13 tapes the 13 reasons why she has decided to end her own life. Each “reason” is related to the behavior of a specific person, many of whom have allegedly bullied Hannah.
“The book ‘13 Reasons Why’ is a great work of fiction … Let me say that again… fiction,” Tolliver said. “I actually read the book when it first came out in 2007, and enjoyed it very much … as entertainment.”
Tolliver says the novel and hit series is packed with “inconsistencies and improbabilities.”
“Undoubtedly, it has made the topic much more confused and convoluted,” he added. “My biggest concern is the glorification of suicide and the contagion effect for other teenagers who related to the character (Hannah Baker). A person truly contemplating suicide would not take the time or have the energy to create and execute such an elaborate plan as the one portrayed in the book.”
“Not Everything is Bullying” also examines why bullying occurs and cautions adults who may harbor unresolved bullying-related issues to be cautious about allowing their own past experiences cloud their reactions to children who say they’ve been bullied.
Interested in helping Tolliver turn his draft into a published book? Visit www.gofundme.com/noteverythingisbullyingbook to make a donation; he’s raised $300 of his $2,000 goal thus far. The money will be used to help foot the cost of publishing “Not Everything is Bullying” and subsidize the expenses of filming companion videos for kids, which will be viewable on Tolliver’s YouTube channel. The videos will tackle topics such as assertiveness skills, sympathy verses empathy, rude behavior verses mean behavior, conflicts verses bullying and more.
Tolliver’s GoFundMe page is accepting donations through Sept. 1.