Student Well-Being

It’s Not Just That Racial Bullying Jumped in Schools After the 2016 Election. It’s Where It Did

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 09, 2019 7 min read
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Updated with additional responses.

The highly polarizing 2016 presidential campaign blitzed the swing state of Virginia. And in the year that followed, a new study in the journal Educational Researcher suggests, school bullying problems likewise split along political lines.

In 2017, 18 percent more middle school students reported they had been bullied in communities around the state that voted for Republican Donald Trump for president, compared to those communities that had favored Democrat Hillary Clinton. In particular, race-based bullying rates were 9 percent higher in the GOP-favoring localities versus those in Democrat-leaning ones.

The researchers also studied the magnitude of the win in each community. For every 10 percentage point increase in voter support for Trump, the researchers found an 8 percent rise in reported bullying and a 5 percent increase in bullying because of a student’s race or ethnicity.

By contrast, from 2013 to 2017, there was no difference in school bullying rates between Republican- and Democrat-leaning communities in the commonwealth’s biannual school climate survey, according to study authors Francis Huang, an associate professor of statistics, measurement, and evaluation in education at the University of Missouri, and Dewey Cornell, an education professor and the director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In fact, bullying overall was on the decline across Virginia from 2013 to 2015 as it has been in the nation as a whole, they found.

“It would be far too simplistic to think that candidate Trump or President-elect Trump said something, and that directly influenced middle school kids to engage in bullying,” Cornell said. “It’s much more likely that it was an indirect, broader effect involving more of a societal change: more people expressing more hostile views, being less concerned about the impact of their statements on other people, and kids picking that up from the media and maybe from their parents or other adults. ... But the fact that we could see it consistently in a statistically reliable manner across hundreds of schools, I think that’s what makes it compelling.”

The study comes in the wake of other research and anecdotal evidence of what the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed the “Trump effect,” after a study which found derogatory and bullying comments among schoolchildren, such as chanting “Build the wall” or “Go back to Mexico” at Hispanic students, paralleled adult political rhetoric. Education Week tracked some 500 reports of bias-related school bullying since the election—including incidents where students directly referenced President Trump and racial or religious slurs—as part of the Documenting Hate project.

Huang suggested that adults around students may have seemed more or less accepting of harsh comments during the campaign if they favored the candidate politically, and students likely picked up on that.

“Leaders influence social norms in profoundly important ways,” said Jonathan Cohen, an adjunct professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the former president of the National School Climate Center. “Although bullying a person is an individual or a group act, it’s also always a social process. There are virtually always witnesses who see or hear this mean or disrespectful behavior and social norms shape to what extent kids, but also teachers and other adults in the school building and the school community, just passively accept [the bullying].”

Cornell agreed. “There are many teachable moments in schools. When bullying occurs, or when there’s a hostile statement or gesture, it should be an opportunity for teachers and counselors to educate too about what’s not appropriate about that behavior,” he said. “In our previous research, we found that in middle school, when students think that the teachers don’t care about bullying, that they turn a blind eye to it and won’t respond to it, it [bullying] becomes more prevalent.”

Different Bullying Motivations

For their study, which was released today, the researchers analyzed responses from 155,000 7th and 8th grade students who took part in Virginia’s biennial school climate survey, which includes both questions about bullying generally and specific types of harassment, from bullying about race and sexual orientation to harassment about appearance. The researchers mapped student responses to voting preferences in different counties, which in Virginia adhere fairly cleanly to school district boundaries. They also controlled for other differences among communities, such as parent education levels, population density, racial diversity, and poverty levels, which have previously been shown to affect rates of bullying.

While the study found trends in overall reports of bullying and race-based harassment split in line with voter preferences, Huang and Dewey did not find strong evidence of differences for other types of bullying, such as harassment based on sexual orientation:

Those findings echo a separate analysis by Elizabeth Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, who found based on a longitudinal study of 1,900 secondary school students in Massachusetts that the percentage of bias-based harassment began climbing in 2015:

However, Englander noted that her own analysis had not looked at particular areas of the country nor political preferences, and warned, “I certainly would hesitate to generalize about any strong association between political preferences and abusive behaviors.”

Cornell also noted that it’s still unclear whether more individual children engaged in bullying behavior after the election, or whether children who already were inclined to harass simply increased the behaviors or changed their targets.

In a separate earlier interview with Education Week on bias-based harassment, David Finkelhor, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, in Durham, N.H., said bullying dynamics can be complex: “There is some harassment very strongly motivated by intergroup hostility and supported by a strong set of values and beliefs and prejudices that are part of the background and culture of the people doing the bullying. And at the other extreme, there is bullying that is just based on interpersonal dislike and has no connection to group membership,” he said, “But there is a ton of stuff in the middle, where personal dislike can make a bully define someone by identity stereotypes. And also episodes where someone is different in some way, and so they get targeted and they are a member of a group, but it’s not based on a strong set of exisiting prejudices.”

Adolescents can be particularly sensitive to heated public conversations, said Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo in New York.

“If you think of your middle and high school kids, a lot of what is shaping them are media and their peers,” Nickerson said. “It’s kind of developmentally appropriate for them to be ... drawn in and influenced by some of those messages, and to be a little more drawn to the risk taking, the sensation seeking of mimicking some of what they hear to get an effect.”

Even though their were differences among communities, the overall rates of bullying were relatively low across the state: 16.8 percent in Clinton-favoring communities and just under 20 percent in communities that favored Trump. “It’s not like bullying just exponentially increased, ... though it went up disproportionately in those communities where they voted Republican, it wasn’t a total transformation,” said Michael Furlong, an education professor emeritus and school climate researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, who was not part of the study.

But, he added, “Schools are not just trying to get kids not to bully each other. They’re trying to get students to develop as citizens who respect one another. ... to create climates that encourage students to kind of be their better angels, if you will, to explore what that better self could be like. So when you have adult role models giving them different examples than that, it then becomes more difficult as an educator to argue why should we engaged in these types of respectful and supportive behaviors at school?”

The takeaway for educators and administrators, Huang said, is “not to turn a blind eye to this. ... This type of victimization does happen and if a school doesn’t do anything about it or doesn’t take it as seriously, then it’s like it’s being condoned or is being accepted as well.”

During class discussions of sensitive topics, Nickerson suggested teachers “not be afraid to take a clip from a news story or a video and have students really discuss not only the issues but how [the speaker is arguing] and what effect that may have in day to day life on students ... particularly asking older students to think about how it might affect younger students.”

Chart Sources: Chart one, Education Researcher; chart two, Elizabeth Englander

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.