Skip to main content
ascd logo

A three-year study of students' experiences and stories sheds some light on what administrators should know to curb the pervasive problem of peer harassment.
If you wear something the other kids will laugh at or if you sit in something or get caught, you know, having your period, then the whole class will see and make fun of you. It's nerve-wracking. Someone is always saying something. Someone is always watching. You have to be careful.—A middle school girl
We hear a lot today about student-to-student harassment in newspapers, on TV, and even from our own children. In an effort to understand how students treat one another—even in ordinary adolescent banter—we (a professor and five doctoral students in educational administration) developed a research team to study peer harassment and understand how it occurs and how we can learn to stop it.
During the 1992-95 academic years, we interviewed more than 1,000 Long Island, New York, students in eight middle, junior, and high schools. They represented a suburban mix of middle-class, wealthy, and low-income families. We also observed students in classes and hallways and in social settings, before and after school. Finally, we interviewed and observed school personnel at each site to understand the response of educators to peer harassment.

Patterns of Harassment

Most of the peer harassment we observed and heard about focused on verbal assaults. The pervasive nature of peer harassment—particularly sexual harassment—surprised us the most. Because peer sexual abuse was so widespread, no one appeared safe.
Everywhere we went, kids made fun of other kids—this was more usual than unusual.. Although bullies and sexually aggressive students instigated some harassment, most of the persecution—especially in middle school—was random and illogical. Harassment occurred at school events, was unplanned, and, initially, was not thought out. The students we interviewed saw harassment as a way of life for themselves. "People make fun of you," said one student. "They make fun of your hair and the way you dress. They're just cruel."
A boy described what most boys told us is normal male behavior when he said, "We're always making fun of each other the whole time we are together." Another student added: Unless they're close friends, people talk about each other with no respect. If they don't like you, they pick on you. You can just be sittin' at the table and they start dissin' on you and stuff or talkin' about you.
We saw and heard about more harassment by boys than by girls, but both sexes harassed their peers. Girls believed that boys only picked on girls, whereas boys described their male peers as harassers. In general, boys targeted both boys and girls in a direct style that one student described as "in your face." Girls made fun of other girls indirectly or behind their backs. When a girl harassed a boy, it was almost always a response to his attack on her.
Name-calling was the most common form of harassment. In fact, practically everyone had a story to tell about their classmates' names and labels. "This one boy calls me Miss Piggy." "Boys call me cow." "Boys say things like joker to a girl with big lips and they call this other girl greasy." "Boys call one girl popcorn because she has zits." "Boys say you're stacked."
While all students were vulnerable to general harassment, some students were targeted more than others. In general, most girls were harassed by peers at some time during their school experience—more likely by boys than by girls. Not only did females experience more kinds of abuse more often, but it upset them more than it did males.

The Main Targets

Girls were teased because of how they looked and boys for how they acted.
Unattractive or unstylish girls. Males harassed females in this category more frequently, although sometimes females made fun of other females. Girls perceived as physically unattractive were often called fat or cows. When they entered a classroom, the boys made loud mooing sounds. One student described a repeated attack on her friend by a group of boys: "The girl isn't fat, but they call her cow, and they moo at her." Comments about a girl's weight were common, although a larger than average boy was seldom harassed.
Physically mature girls. Girls who developed breasts earlier than their classmates were at higher risk for name-calling. Other students accused them of sexual activity and circulated rumors about their so-called exploits. In addition, boys quizzed more physically developed girls with questions such as, "What did you do last night?" and "How much did he pay you?" In one incident, boys teased an 8th grade girl because of her physical appearance. "They call her slut," remarked a student. "They say how far they've gotten. A lot of boys will talk about her. They'll say she's easy. Everybody talks."
Boys often confronted these girls directly, making sexual demands and comments. It was not uncommon for a boy to target a girl for sexual confrontation before, after, or during a class, as a middle school girl explained: In English class, right in front of the teacher, Joey will say, "I think I'm getting hard" when his girlfriend walks in or when he wants to embarrass some girl. The teacher only says, "Joey, calm down." Joey will say to girls, "I want you now." He does this to the unpopular girls to embarrass them and make them feel uncomfortable. Everybody laughs at the girl. She blushes or walks away.
Surprisingly, the double standard for girls remained strong. Fears of damage to their reputations by rumors were pervasive. Despite increased sexual activity by all adolescents, girls still suffered the most if they were considered sexually active. One girl described what we heard from many: Girls get called whores. If it gets around, even if you are not, it ruins your reputation. I had a friend who the boys called a whore. She wasn't, but she got the name. It ruined her reputation.
Boys who don't fit the stereotypic male mold. Harassment of boys often took the form of homophobic insult, in which boys were called queer, old lady, girl, sissy, or any name that linked them to a female or feminine behavior. Fear of being labeled a homosexual was much more common than fear of actually being one. Boys didn't want others to believe they were homosexual and worked hard to make sure that their behavior fit an imagined norm. Such insults were hurled at boys for any perceived weakness. Many boys told us that the most common verbal assault among their male peers was to equate the boy with femininity. "You'd call a person a pussy if they were afraid to do something," said one middle school boy. "Like if we were drinking and they were afraid to drink."
This description of treatment by 7th and 8th grade boys was typical of the homophobic club wielded against boys who didn't conform to a macho image: If they were quiet, if they acted different in the way they walked or acted in the hall—like hyper or something—or if they were into karate, or acted in any way different from the rest, they'd get laughed about. Kids make up nicknames like gay and faggot.
A 7th grade boy told us that if a boy didn't talk about having sex with girls, then his peers assumed he was a homosexual. If he's not interested in girls, they might call him gay. When we're talking about girls there is this one kid who is silent, and we wonder why he is not talking about having sex with girls. We say, "What's wrong with him?"
Boys who didn't excel in athletics became targets. A 9th grader told us, If someone isn't good at sports, they'll call him a faggot. One time a kid missed the ball or he did something stupid, and they called him a fucking fag.
Our study showed that fear of being labeled a homosexual was central to male adolescent life and was a strong influence on male behavior.

How Do Students Respond?

Female and male responses to name-calling were the same: They felt bad about themselves. One girl told us that she felt "sad and worthless." A middle school boy said, "They make fun of me—it's depressing. I would change schools if I could." Another girl reported, "It makes you feel powerless. The guys think it is a joke." One girl described the constant verbal abuse as wearing. It's tiresome. It worries me. I know that I'm affected by it, but I have a tendency to pretend I'm not. We get used to it.
Five responses by the students to verbal harassment included ignoring it, rationalizing it, fighting it, changing behavior, or becoming part of a group to shield themselves from it. They often used more than one of these strategies to stop attacks. No matter which defense they took, however, students reported that verbal abuse hurt.

How Do Adults Respond?

Typical adult responses to allegations of harassment in schools almost always discouraged students from further reports, seldom curbed harassment, and left kids feeling as though they had no place to turn for help. Very often, when students reported harassment, they felt uncomfortable and responsible for the harassment. In many cases, staff and other students penalized them for going public by reporting a crime. In these cases, students were violated twice—first by the harassment and then by the treatment of adults and other students.
The majority of students didn't report harassment in schools. Only about 6 percent of students told an adult in authority when they were harassed. The rest either didn't tell anyone or only told a friend. Because adults seldom heard harassment complaints, they mistakenly believed that the climate was not troublesome to adolescents. When students did report peer harassment, they were often told: "You're overreacting," "That's the way life is," or "What do you expect when you wear clothes like that?" Thus, students didn't feel particularly supported by staff when they reported abuses, and most students in our study believed that teachers and administrators didn't care or that it wasn't their job to stop them.
Students said that teachers and administrators rarely intervened when harassment occurred. Some students believed that teachers saw the harassment, but didn't want to get involved. This incident is typical: In science class, the boys snap our bras. The [male] teacher doesn't really care. He doesn't say anything. The teacher has to keep teaching. The boys just laugh.
Other students believed that teachers didn't stop peer harassment because they didn't care about students. A few thought the teachers had too much to do, and that stopping abuse was not part of their job description. "Teachers don't really have time—they have 200 people to think about. I don't expect them to care."
Either way, students didn't view talking to school personnel as a possible recourse. One girl spoke for most when she said, "No way I'd report harassment to the principal or anyone else. I'd be the laughingstock of the school."
In cases of peer abuse, teachers—particularly male teachers—often sided with student athletes accused of harassment, especially sexual. They defended the athletes, often describing a female target as setting a trap or encouraging the athletes. These same teachers often isolated the student accuser or failed to act on allegations of sexual abuse by male athletes. These teachers gave male students this message: "Watch out or you will be falsely accused." Rarely did we find evidence that teachers talked with males, particularly athletes, about sexual harassment. Instead, most male students got the message to be careful not to get caught.
In cases of verbal harassment, most students and teachers alike reported that teachers only intervened minimally. One girl said: For name-calling, they'll [teachers] just say, "I don't want to hear that," and then that's it. They really don't do anything else. . . . I wish teachers would stop it right away; even if they hear only one thing.
Another student described ineffectual teacher response this way: They [teachers] don't take as much control as they should. They say, "Don't do it next time." And when they [the harassers] do it the next time, they [the teachers] keep on saying the same thing. They don't take control.
Supporters of victims tended to be quiet, often not even telling the other student they believed the story. Many students thought that anyone who was harassed brought it on themselves. For example, one student said, "If girls are flirting or flaunting, then both guys and girls would call them names, like 'ho'." Another student reported that any student who "wears short shorts is a slut." Although this student and her friends wore short shorts, she stressed that "we're definitely not sluts. There are a lot of other girls in our grade who are."

Putting an End to It

Stopping peer harassment requires changing the adolescent culture of the school. Because students don't report harassment and because the peer culture requires that they act as though it doesn't affect them, adults must take the lead in behavioral change.
Help the school community become conscious of harassing behavior. This takes some time and involves students, teachers, other staff, and parents. Students initially downplay the effects of harassment. Therefore, we need to use reflective activities to raise consciousness and raise students' awareness of their own feelings. Teachers can plan these activities through academic projects and assignments in all areas. In literature classes, focus on the issues of acceptable community behavior when discussing fiction. In science and math classes, ask students to conduct surveys about teasing and harassment and analyze the results. In art courses, encourage students to portray in paintings and other representations how they feel about verbal attacks.
Westbury Friends School in Westbury puts a priority on conflict resolution. This school is an institution that honors its Quaker roots by its peaceful settlement of everyday conflict. Teachers try to spot potential conflicts between students and defuse them by talking to students before conflicts get out of hand.
Define appropriate behavior. Once aware of the extent of harassment and the harm it does, students and faculty can move toward defining the behavior they would like to see replace harassment. These definitions must include detailed explanations of what students and teachers believe is acceptable behavior. In small-group activities, community participants can share their definitions of respectful and caring behavior. For example, students can explain how and when they feel it is appropriate to be touched by others. Teachers might share a list of words they prefer that students do not use. During this phase, allow students and faculty to freely speak about the kind of language that makes them feel uncomfortable. Remember that teachers and other staff members are part of the community. Expecting students to conform to the comfort level of the adults is not only a reasonable expectation but it is also a responsible one. The purpose is to end up with guidelines for behavior in a caring, inclusive environment.
Monitor and change the behavior. If teachers give these problems at least a year of close attention, three things can happen: students and faculty will learn about expectations; teachers will monitor student behavior; and students will realize the harmful consequences of unchanged behavior.
The main point is to stay attentive to behavior. Teachers can use staff meetings, student meetings, assemblies, staff inservices, special projects, plays, school newspaper articles, PTA meetings, and other community activities to discuss harassment issues. Teachers must also monitor their own behavior because sarcasm and ridicule by teachers is no more acceptable than peer harassment.
Changing adolescent culture isn't easy. It is necessary, however, if we are to ensure a safe environment for learning and growing.
End Notes

1 J. Hildebrand, (March 11, 1996), "Taking the Fight Out of Students in School" (Newsday, p. A23).

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.