A third of students reported that they experienced bullying during the 2017-18 school year — up from a fourth in previous school years, according to survey results released today by YouthTruth Student Survey, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization.
Schools in which the majority of students are white were more likely to report bullying than those where students of color make up the majority — 36% compared to 32%. In schools with more students of color, however, white students still reported experiencing more bullying.
In schools where students of color represent the majority, more than three-fourths of both groups say they think the way they look is the primary reason why they are bullied. There were small differences between white students’ responses and those from students of color regarding other possible factors. White students were more likely to list where they’re from and sexual orientation as reasons for being bullied, while students of color were more likely to say family income, disability and religion were the reasons.
The biggest difference between the two groups in reasons for bullying was race, with 27% of white students saying that was the reason compared to 36% of students of color. In majority white schools, the increase between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years in the percentage of students reporting bullying was also higher among students of color than it was among white students — a increase of 7 percentage points, compared to 3 percentage points.
Middle school students are also more likely to report being bullied than those in high school — 39% to 27%. The survey report also says most bullying still occurs in person, even though data from the Cyberbullying Research Center shows that about a third of middle and high school students also said they were bullied online.
The timing of the results, based on responses from 160,000 students in 27 states, come shortly after the release of a recent study finding that bullying and teasing rates increased in Virginia middle schools located in voting districts that chose President Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — testing the so-called "Trump effect." But Kelson Goldfine, marketing and external relations coordinator for YouthTruth, said there is no indication that the increase shown on the YouthTruth survey is connected.
"We are obviously aware of the broader conversation and concerns about the link between a rise in bullying and our political context," she said. "But our methodology was different than the Virginia study, and we did not break down the data by GOP versus Democratic districts."
More cases being filed against districts
The survey results also come as families increasingly seek to hold schools responsible for intervening in bullying situations.
“I think there are more lawsuits being filed alleging that school officials failed to take appropriate action,” Brian D. Schwartz, the deputy executive director and general counselor for the Illinois Principals Association, said in an interview.
For example, the St. Joseph School District in Missouri is facing a lawsuit in which a former student alleges he was bullied at more than one school, which led to post-traumatic stress and receiving homebound education services. In Rockaway Township, New Jersey, the parents of a 6th grader who died by suicide filed a lawsuit against the school district, the town, school leaders, teachers, school nurses and other staff members who, the parents allege, didn’t stop bullying incidents targeted at their daughter. And in the El Paso-Gridley School District in Illinois, a Woodford County jury awarded $250,000 in damages to the family of a former student who was beaten on the school bus.
Schools and districts are most likely to be held accountable for bullying, Schwartz said, under federal law, including Title IX, which prohibits sexual or gender-based discrimination or harassment in schools that receive federal funding. Schools also have to have knowledge of the incident and they had to have acted with “deliberate indifference,” Schwartz said, adding that while a family can file a lawsuit regarding a single incident, the more the bullying behavior is repeated, the more likely it is to rise to the level of violating federal law.
Also under federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide protections against bullying for students with disabilities, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act applies to discrimination based on race, color or national origin.
While states in recent years have increasingly passed laws and policies against bullying or that require districts to have anti-bullying policies in place, Schwartz said it’s much harder for plaintiffs to be successful under state law. Districts often have tort immunity, unless their actions are “willful or malicious” and the rise of cyberbullying — which may occur off campus — further complicates when school districts can be held accountable.
“Federal lawmakers, while unable to push a federal cyberbullying bill through Congress, have issued interpretive guidelines indicating that schools may have a duty to police off-campus cyberbullying,” attorney Matthew Fenn wrote in a Fordham Law Review article. “When cyberbullying does occur among students with injurious consequences, ‘Why didn’t the school do anything?’ is a common response.”
Dispelling myths about bullying
Dorothy Espelage, a University of Florida psychology professor and a bullying prevention expert, said in an interview that she’s also seen an increase in families wanting to hold schools responsible for not stopping bullying. In the past, cases tended to be limited to incidents in which a student died by suicide, and even in those cases, attorneys for school districts often argue the student was depressed and there was no link between the bullying and the suicide.
“There has been a rising of awareness, and parents are becoming better advocates for their kids,” Espelage said. “But it’s exhausting to try to go up against these schools.”
She said she tries to use research to help school officials understand the impact of bullying, adding that “the science is clear” that a student will change his or her behavior, such as stop riding the bus or avoid particular areas of the school building. She said she also tries to erase some of the myths surrounding bullying, such as that it has to be repeated. With social media, she noted, “What is repetition if a million people have seen it?”
Despite the latest YouthTruth findings, Schwartz adds that districts have increased efforts to train staff members and students on how to recognize bullying and what to do with the information. Getting a more accurate read on what students are experiencing is part of that process, experts and school leaders say.
Profiled in the YouthTruth results, Quincy Junior High in Washington saw dramatic increases in students reporting that they had been bullied — from 28% in 2016-17 to 46% in 2017-18 — and declines in the percentage of parents reporting that their children were safe from bullying. With those results, the school prepared a two-day lesson for classes on bullying and inclusion and created a video for the entire district.
Espelage noted that it’s important to implement whole-school approaches and to not limit prevention to a one-time assembly. At the individual level, she added that trying to “mediate” a bullying situation through a conflict resolution or restorative circle program is ineffective and can make the intimidation worse for the student being harassed.
Many states and districts also now have apps, tip lines and online methods that students and others can use to report bullying or issues such as suicidal thoughts or threats against students or the school. Washington has Safe Schools Alert, which is available to all districts in the state through two insurance risk pools, Mike Donlin, the program supervisor with the state education department’s School Safety Center, explained in an email.
At an August meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety, officials talked about their experiences with a similar system, Safe to Tell, where anyone can leave an anonymous tip. First launched in Colorado, the program has also been picked up in other states.
Students want 'more than reporting'
The idea behind using survey results and reporting systems is students are experts on what is happening in their schools. In her work, Espelage said she learned students “wanted something more than reporting; they wanted resources.” She worked with other researchers and app designers to develop and pilot a tool, called Advocatr, that gives students a way to report an incident — or something positive — as well as get a response on whether the issue has been handled.
Because it’s not an anonymous system, there is more accountability for both the students reporting the concerns and the school officials receiving the reports, Espelage said.
Anonymous systems, Schwartz said, can be less helpful because they might tie up staff members’ time in investigating false reports. While the growth of these systems are generally viewed as useful, Donlin added, “it can get complicated depending on who receives reports, where they go next, who, at the school level, finally gets it – and when.”