10 years later: How are we doing with bullying?
Monday, April 17, 2017
In 2007, a group of students distributed pink shirts in solidarity with a boy who was bullied for wearing one to school in Canada. This event — which served as the original impetus for special days dedicated to raising awareness and uniting against bullying that take place around the world — led to the United Nations official designating of May 4 as Anti-Bullying Day.
Today, let's take a look at where the issue lies one decade later.
The year Pink Shirt Day was started, bullying experienced by youth between 12-18 years of age peaked at 32 percent in the United States. Since 2007, reported bullying by this age group has been slowly decreasing, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Institute of Education Sciences' National Center for Education Statistics.
The most recent statistics, show 20.8 percent of students reported being bullied during the 2014-15 school year. More bullying was reported by sixth graders than older students, and the most common offenses were being insulted, made fun of or called names, followed by being the subject of rumors.
While the IES percentages demonstrate movement in a positive direction, looking at actual numbers paints a more startling picture. Population estimates from the 2015 census show 53 million school-age children in the U.S. Using the logic that the 20.8 percent figure for older students isn't too far off for the 5- to 12-year-old age group, the number of kids bullied annually comes to over 11 million.
"Bullying has risen to prominence with social media with kids finding more sophisticated ways of being mean to people," shares Vivian Romero, a middle school counselor in Oakland, about how bullying has changed over past decade. On the other hand, students have become bolder and more violent in their face-to-face confrontations.
"I used to have to be more attuned to signs of subtle bullying, like whispering or discreet ways that kids would avoid someone — now everything is out in the open and obvious."
Around the time the IES statistics were released in December 2016, the nation was experiencing another whole reality following the presidential race and elections. Around the country, incidents linked to campaign rhetoric that largely targeted Latino, Muslim and LGBT students sparked considerable concern among educators and advocacy groups.
In response, the newspaper Politico requested statistics on bullying and harassment incidents reported during the current year and the same period the previous year from more than a dozen school districts including some located in campaign battleground states. When the article was released in mid-January, stats from the seven districts that responded showed no significant spike in reported incidents. However, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade — four of the largest and most racially diverse districts, had yet to provide data.
Unfortunately, such reports reveal only incidents reported to school authorities, so it is difficult to know how widespread the problem actually is. As many as one-third of victims never tell adults or reveal it only when they are much older, according to an article in VeryWell by Rebecca Fraser-Thill, professor of developmental psychology.
Reasons children don't report bullying include fear of retaliation, being labeled a "narc" by peers or feeling that no one will help so telling is pointless. In addition, explains Fraser-Thill, "Children who are bullied often feel like they somehow 'deserve' the abuse. Therefore, victims of bullying typically feel a great deal of shame and guilt surrounding the bullying."
On the other hand, surveys based on volunteer response provide the opportunity for anonymous expression by both victims and witnesses of bullying.
Case in point is the Post-Election Survey of Youth by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which gathered responses from 50,000 teens between Dec. 19, 2016 and Jan. 10, 2017. While not designed to be statistically representative of all U.S. teens nor demographically reflective of the nation's diversity, the results give us insight into realities experienced by the youth who chose to respond.
According to the report, over 70 percent had witnessed bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the election. Of these, more than 70 percent said that at least one incident had been based on race, making it the most common motive reported.
Among several poignant examples from the write-in section of the survey, a 16-year-old student shared, "At my high school, people were drawing in the stalls above water fountains and toilets: 'white' or 'colored.'"
"I think the most important thing figures of authority can do is believe people who say that they are victims, and support them in any way that they can," wrote a 15-year-old from Colorado. "This includes defending the victim before the person who bullied or harassed them. By this, I mean not apologizing on behalf of the bully, and protecting the victim first."
Romero says what she's seen work in the classroom to counter bullying are extremely well-prepared teachers who have a lot of structure and procedures so their classes are predictable. For schoolwide initiatives to really make a lasting difference, she can't overemphasize the importance of accountability among counseling staff and educators. For example, programs involving social emotional learning and small learning communities require careful tracking and documentation of all the interventions.
Whether the situation has gotten better or worse in the past 10 years is quite difficult to pinpoint. Yet the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine's recent report declaring bullying a serious public health issue demonstrates the serious degree of the problem.
"We need to understand that this is a public health problem faced by a third of our children," said Dr. Frederick Rivara, chairman of the committee compiling the report in a CNN article. "It has a major effect on their academic performance as well as their mental and physical health."
Concern on the international level is evident in the organization of the first World Anti-Bullying Forum, taking place May 7-9 in Stockholm, Sweden. The conference will bring together educators from around the globe, leading researchers and experts from various disciplines to deeply explore the issue and seek solutions.
Clearly, the problem warrants a well-organized and intelligent campaign involving everyone concerned about the well-being of today's young people. Uniting as a global community to face the issue is one positive step in the right direction.
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