School & District Management

Study Disputes Myth of School Bullies’ Social Status

By Nirvi Shah — February 08, 2011 5 min read

In the movie “Mean Girls,” head plastic Regina George tortures her North Shore High classmates of all stripes, including her supposed best friends. At Springfield Elementary, where Bart Simpson goes to school, Nelson Muntz, the oversized dimwit with the distinctive laugh, is the cartoon series’ bully.

A new study suggests that, in reality, neither of those students would be the aggressors on campus.

Robert W. Faris, an assistant sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, spent several years surveying students at middle and high schools in rural and suburban North Carolina. The results of his research are published in this month’s edition of the American Sociological Review.

He found that students in the middle of the social hierarchies at their schools, rather than the most popular or the most socially outcast, are more likely to be bullies.

“I think there’s kind of a simple explanation: These kids view aggression as one tactic for gaining or maintaining their social status,” Mr. Faris said. “This is not the only way that kids climb socially. There are a lot of other ways—much more effective ways: being good in sports, being pretty, being rich, if you’re funny, if you’re nice.”

Mr. Faris and UC-Davis colleague Diane Felmlee mapped social networks, based on students’ responses to surveys about who their friends were and whether those students listed them in turn, allowing the researchers to discern which students were at the center of a particular school’s social web. Then they asked which classmates treated them aggressively, discounting playful teasing. The surveys showed that the students from whom the spokes of school popularity emanated were less likely to harass classmates verbally, spread rumors, engage in cyber-bullying, or use physical violence against their peers.

“Our interpretation is, kids view this as a means to an end. Once they get to the top, they no longer need to be aggressive. Aggression could be counterproductive: It could signal insecurity,” Mr. Faris said.

But, he added, “there are definitely some kids who were socially marginal and highly aggressive. There’s always going to be exceptions.”

The researchers, whose longitudinal study followed 3,722 students from 2002 through 2005, found that regardless of their backgrounds, race or ethnicity, or grade levels, the patterns of aggressors’ places in the social spectrum were the same.

“Traditionally, sociologists find these socioeconomic and demographic factors are the strongest predictors” of social behavior Mr. Faris said. “This is an exception.”

Born of Experience

He said the research was sparked, in part, by his own experiences as the victim of aggression.

“I’ve always had an interest in general terms in the relationship between power and violence. On a more personal level, in 4th grade, I used to come home with a bloody nose almost every day,” he said.

Two older students sought out the future sociologist, regardless of whether he changed bus stops or went out of his way to avoid them, looking to beat him up. He never knew why he was their frequent target. “I remember it being kind of a mystery.”

Mr. Faris and Ms. Felmlee’s findings jibe with what bullying-prevention and -support groups have found: Old stereotypes of school bullies are dangerous in the modern world.

J. Marlene Snyder, the director of development for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, said her organization’s training makes clear that school employees shouldn’t have preconceived ideas about who might be aggressive at school.

“We are very careful to teach our teachers that anyone can play any role. It’s what group you’re with and what the situation is,” she said.

The Olweus approach is used in more than 7,000 schools nationwide and is named after a Norwegian researcher who began studying bullying behavior in his country more than 40 years ago. In the United States, Ms. Snyder and the Olweus program are based at Clemson University in South Carolina.

“We have been very careful in our training not to spend too much time on who might be the aggressor or who might be the child who is being victimized,” Ms. Snyder said. “Some of the early stuff [in bullying prevention] talked about personal characteristics. You can be pretty. You can be smart—anything that is different from the group—that someone in the group decides is not OK.’’

And from one moment to the next, one scenario to another, Ms. Snyder said students’ roles as aggressor and target may reverse.

“We do not use the terms ‘bully’ and ‘victim’. We’re trying to get people to understand that this is a very complex issue and not to just constantly saddle one child with one label,” she said. “That’s not helpful.”

Changing the Culture

At schools in Allegheny County, surrounding of Pittsburgh, Jim A. Bozigar employs the Olweus approach to combat aggression, whether the behavior is triggered by a desire for popularity or by teenage sexuality—the latter of which he noted that Mr. Faris’ research did not directly address.

His work is supported by the Highmark Healthy High 5, a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Highmark Foundation in Pittsburgh to promote lifelong healthy behaviors in children and adolescents.

“If a child has any feature that can make them look or appear exceptional, that can make them a target,” Mr. Bozigar said. “The thing that we try to do is change the culture [of the school]. You have to empower the adults to empower students. They are the front line. They are the ones that are going to make the program succeed.”

What happened in the North Carolina schools Mr. Faris studied is also what Leigh Anne Kraemer, of The Ophelia Project, in Erie, Pa., has observed. The Ophelia Project is a nonprofit organization that works with youths and adults affected by relational and other nonphysical forms of aggression.

“It’s a myth that it’s just the popular kids that bully. It’s not the rich kids picking on the poor kids or the bigger ones picking on the little ones,” said Ms. Kraemer, the group’s education specialist. “If you’re looking to gain power and status by pushing others down, that’s where we really see a problem.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Disputes Myth of School Bullies’ Social Status

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Data Analyst
New York, NY, US
New Visions for Public Schools
Project Manager
United States
K12 Inc.
High School Permanent Substitute Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
MS STEM Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District

Read Next

School & District Management Student Mental Health and Learning Loss Continue to Worry Principals
Months into the pandemic, elementary principals say they still want training in crucial areas to help students who are struggling.
3 min read
Student sitting alone with empty chairs around her.
Maria Casinos/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion A Road Map for Education Research in a Crisis
Here are five basic principles for a responsible and timely research agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robin J. Lake
4 min read
Two opposing sides reaching out to work together
J.R. Bee for Education Week
School & District Management 1,000 Students, No Social Distancing, and a Fight to Keep the Virus Out
A principal describes the "nightmare" job of keeping more than 1,000 people safe in the fast-moving pandemic.
4 min read
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School, in West Jordan, Utah.
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan, Utah, would have preferred a hybrid schedule and other social distancing measures.
Courtesy of Dixie Rae Garrison
School & District Management A School Leader Who Calls Her Own Shots on Battling the Coronavirus
A charter school founder uses her autonomy to move swiftly on everything from classroom shutdowns to remote schooling.
3 min read
Nigena Livingston, founder and head of School at the URBAN ACT Academy in Indianapolis, Ind.
Nigena Livingston, founder and head of school at the URBAN ACT Academy in Indianapolis, makes swift decisions in responding to the threat of COVID-19 in her school community.
Courtesy of Nigena Livingston