Amid growing concern over the connection between bullying and school violence, a national survey released last week found that nearly a third of U.S. students in grades 6-10 report they are bullies, victims of bullies, or both.
In the survey of 15,686 public and private school students, 30 percent of the students reported bullying others, being the target of bullies, or both.
More than 10 percent said they sometimes bullied others, and 9 percent admitted they bullied other students at least once a week or more. Meanwhile, 8.5 percent reported they were bullied sometimes, and nearly the same percentage said they were bullied once a week or more.
Taken in spring 1998 as part of the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-Aged Children study, the survey is described as the first nationally representative research on the frequency of bullying among students in the United States.
The findings come at a time of increasing attention to bullying. In about two-thirds of the school shootings that the U.S. Secret Service reviewed for a study last year, the attackers had felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others. The agency found that a number of the teenagers had suffered persistent, severe bullying and harassment. (“At School, a Cruel Culture,” March 21, 2001.)
In the case of Charles A. Williams, a 15-year-old youth accused of killing two students in a shooting rampage at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., on March 5, classmates described him as a constant target of physical and verbal abuse at school. The parents of Elizabeth Catherine Bush, a 14-year-old Pennsylvania student who shot a classmate in the shoulder that same week, said she had been regularly brutalized by bullies.
“Clearly, bullying is not just something kids do that is harmless,” said Tonja R. Nansel, a researcher with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the lead author of the study, which was published April 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “It’s very likely something that leads to long-term problems.”
A majority of the research on bullying has been done in Europe and Australia. Until now, little was known about the nature or extent of the problem in the United States, experts said last week.
“There’s sort of sad irony to that, given the extent of youth violence in America,” said Dr. Howard Spivak, a professor of pediatrics and community health at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Medford, Mass., who wrote a commentary to accompany the journal report.
Although the WHO survey did not explore the relationship between violent behavior and bullying, Dr. Spivak said, enough evidence exists to suggest a strong link.
“There is an indirect case to be made here from what we know about the psychosocial development of children involved in bullying,” he said, “and the anecdotal evidence” from recent school shootings.
The psychological and social problems associated with bullying depend on which end of the equation a child falls.
Both bullies and victims of bullies were more likely than other children to be involved in fights and more often reported poor academic achievement. Bullies reported higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use and were more likely to have negative attitudes about school. Their victims, on the other hand, were more likely to report being lonely and having difficulty forming friendships.
While more studies are needed, researchers say the findings in the WHO survey and research conducted in other countries point to the need for immediate but informed action on the part of policymakers and schools.
“We need to know more about the bullying relationship and some of the longer-term implications, but I also think there’s enough reason to be concerned that we should be looking at strategies to prevent bullying,” Dr. Spivak said. “Those strategies need to be linked to a good understanding of child development and therapeutic response, rather than just a punitive response.”
Ms. Nansel said that although some prevention strategies are being tried in U.S. schools, the dangers of bullying still aren’t taken seriously enough in this country.
“Schools really need to acknowledge bullying is a problem,” she said. “We still see administrators saying, ‘We don’t have a problem with bullying.’ These findings should help raise the awareness level.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Survey of Students Documents The Extent of Bullying