School Climate & Safety

Bullying Seen Persisting, Despite Some Progress

June 11, 2013 4 min read
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New federal data show some forms of bullying and harassment have declined over the past decade, although the overall percentage of students who have experienced bullying is unchanged.

For example, while about 12 percent of middle and high school students surveyed in 1999 had been the targets of hate-related words in the previous six months, that figure dropped to about 9 percent as of 2011. The rate for high school seniors, however, is almost unchanged over the same time span, at nearly 8 percent.

The nationally representative figures, published last month on the National Center for Education Statistics’ website, come from that agency as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and other agencies.

For students in 6th through 12th grades, the data show, the percentage who were targeted by hate-related graffiti dropped over the 13 years of data collection. The percentage of students who found themselves the target of hurtful words or symbols at school dropped from about 36 percent in 1999 to about 28 percent in 2011.

Likewise, the rate of students who reported fearing an attack or other harm at school at all has dropped dramatically, from nearly 12 percent in 1995 to less than 4 percent in 2011. For black and Hispanic students, it’s an even more encouraging shift—from more than 20 percent of both groups of students worried about being attacked at school to under 5 percent in 2011.

Overall, the percentage of students who steer clear of certain parts of their schools because they worry about a potential attack has dropped from about 9 percent in 1995 to 4.7 percent in 2011.

While that decrease cuts across all age and most racial groups, the data show an uptick in such fear for some students since the 2009 data collection, including 10th graders and Latino students. (For those groups, the rate went up, respectively, from 4.2 percent in 2009 to 5.4 percent in 2011 and from 4.8 percent to 6 percent.)

Despite some bright spots in the data, some experts hoped more would have changed in an era of intense anti-bullying efforts—including attention to the issue by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal Push

The Education Department’s office for civil rights has launched a number of investigations of school districts over their handling of bullying that have resulted in prescriptive requirements for the districts. And the office has issued strong guidance about districts’ responsibilities in addressing bullying and harassment to comply with federal civil rights laws.

From 2005 to 2011, the rate of reported bullying was essentially flat: About 28 percent of middle and high school students reported being bullied each time data was collected over those seven years.

About the same percentage of students at each data collection reported being made fun of, being the subject of rumors, pressured to do something they didn’t want to, excluded from activities on purpose, having property destroyed, or being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit upon. Those patterns were true for most students, regardless of race or gender.

“What is striking is that despite anti-bullying efforts, these numbers have stayed relatively unchanged, hovering around 28 percent to 30 percent,” said Deborah Temkin, the manager of Project SEATBELT, a new bullying-prevention initiative of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a Washington advocacy group.

“It is clear, then, that our anti-bullying efforts have thus far not gone far enough,” she said.

The center’s Project SEATBELT—Safe Environments Achieved Through Bullying prevention, Engagement, Leadership, and Teaching respect—hopes to make the prevention of harassing behavior as automatic an act as buckling a seat belt is for most young people.

Spurring Sea Change

“In the course of a generation, behavior has changed,” Ms. Temkin said of the now widely accepted use of seat belts, and so, too, could educators and parents change students’ behavior to stop bullying before it starts. Ms. Temkin said she is interested to see what the next round of data collection shows in 2013, since those numbers may be more influenced by recent federal efforts to put bullying in the spotlight.

In addition, of the nearly 30 percent of students who reported being bullied at least once or twice at school during the 2010-11 school year, fewer than 40 percent told an adult at school about it.

The rate of students reporting bullying or cyberbullying also dropped from 6th grade to 12th grade. Michael Planty, the chief of the victimization-statistics department at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said that could be because older students are less likely to report bullying. About 8 percent of students reported being cyberbullied—harassed via the Internet, cellphone, or social media. Only 26 percent of them told a teacher.

The larger the school, the more cyberbullying occurred. At schools with 1,000 students or more, 19 percent of students reported having been harassed online, on their cellphones, or on social media. That’s about double the rate of reports at schools with 500 to 999 students, which is about 9 percent, and nearly twice that of schools with fewer than 500 students.

Schools where minority students make up less than 5 percent of enrollment reported the greatest rate of cyberbullying—about 13 percent.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Progress, Persistence Seen in Latest Data on Bullying

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