Several media outlets reported earlier this month on a study pointing up high rates of verbal harassment in the nation’s high schools. Christy Lleras, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, analyzed survey data on more than 10,600 high school students and found that one in five had been verbally put down by a classmate at some point in his or her high school career.
That is disturbing, but I was intrigued by a secondary finding in this study that drew much less attention. Lleras found that teenage insults are just as common—and, in some cases, more so— in private schools, smaller public schools, and public schools that serve a more socioeconomically advantaged student population as they are in all those overpopulated, disadvantaged, public schools that we hear so much about. (In fact, the study found that African-American and Hispanic students overall are less likely than white students to report being put down by classmates.)
I’m surprised, because I thought the whole point of the small-schools movement was to create a more nurturing, affirming climate for kids. Likewise, many parents seek out private schools precisely because they perceive the environment to be a more protective one for their children. So what is going on here? The study doesn’t explain.
I need to offer a caveat at this point: Students at those private schools, small public schools, and better-off high schools were also more likely to say they felt safe—at least from physical harm—than peers in other types of schools. But insults hurt, too, and this study suggests that it takes more than a new school structure, nicer facilities, and richer classmates to build a true community. A cynic might see the results as confirmation of the axiom, “kids will be kids.”
In other findings, the study notes that boys experience more verbal harassment than girls. Again, that was especially true for boys in private schools.
Among African-American and Hispanic teenagers, the study also found, students who thought of themselves as “good students” seemed to be particular targets of harassment—but only in schools with high concentrations of minority students.
Lleras doesn’t believe that the hostile climate surrounding those students causes achievement gaps, but it may contribute. She says:
Sadly, verbal harassment is just one more thing these students have to deal with, and as long as we accept it, because it's not physical bullying, we're doing a grave disservice to the kids who need non-disruptive and focused learning environments the most."
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.