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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Research Says… / Bullying Is Common—And Subtle

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Teachers and administrators typically see only about 4 percent of bullying incidents.

Before his 6th grade year, Carl Walker-Hoover was an ideal student—a Boy Scout who enjoyed sports, school, and his family. At the beginning of that year, however, his behavior changed; he began acting out in class. When his mother confronted him about it, he eventually explained that some other kids in class had been picking on him, saying he acted "like a girl" (Wilson, 2009). His mother complained to the school, but Carl wouldn't tattle on his classmates, so the harassment continued. On April 6, 2009, on returning home from work, his mother found Carl hanging from a rafter, an extension cord around his neck.
Carl's tragic story is but one of many recent examples of bullied children taking their own lives in what's being termed bullycide. Recent research offers fresh insights into the prevalence of bullying, why it occurs, and what schools can do about it.

Common, Subtle, and Potentially Devastating

Educators can easily get the false impression that bullying is not a problem in their school. That's because teachers and administrators typically see only about 4 percent of bullying incidents (Kazdin & Rotella, 2009). Ask students, though, and you'll get a different picture. In a recent survey of 40,000 high school students, 50 percent admitted to bullying other students within the past year, and 47 percent said they had been "bullied, teased, or taunted in a way that seriously upset" them (Josephson Institute, 2010).
Victims are often reluctant to report bullying because, as bullying researcher Dan Olweus (1993), has observed, they "often look upon themselves as failures and feel stupid, ashamed, and unattractive". A recent national survey of U.S. youth found that only about one-third (36 percent) of victims report being bullied, usually only after repeated incidents or physical injury (Petrosino, Guckenburg, DeVoe, & Hanson, 2010).
In a recent survey of teens, fewer than 30 percent of the bullying incidents tallied were physical, such as shoving or causing (or threatening to cause) injury. The rest were indirect or psychological, such as spreading rumors and ostracizing the victim (Petrosino, Guckenburg, DeVoe, & Hanson, 2010). Yet as Carl Walker-Hoover's tragic story shows and researchers have determined, indirect bullying or social aggression can cause even deeper psychological wounds than physical bullying (van der Wal, de Wit, & Hirasing, 2003).
A recent study of three North Carolina schools found that most bullies are not the stereotypical social outcasts waiting in the back hallway to extort lunch money. Rather, they are often popular or semipopular social climbers. The extensive survey of student interactions found that at least one-third of students displayed aggression toward others (favoring social aggression over physical aggression by a 2:1 ratio) and that more popular kids displayed more frequent social aggression (Faris & Felmlee, 2011). Stated bluntly, many kids climb the social pyramid on the backs of other students, using ostracism, ridicule, and gossip to gain social status.

Enlisting the Whole School Community

To date, most antibullying programs have produced disappointing results. A recent meta-analysis of 44 bullying prevention programs, for example, found that fewer than half (19) were effective (Farrington & Tfoti, 2009). One reason that so many programs may fail to reduce bullying is that they appear to be based on false assumptions—for example, that one of the best ways to reduce bullying is to give victims better coping techniques.
As researchers Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella (2009) observed, "Bullies are often more confident, fearless, and socially astute than we tend to assume (the old notion of a bully as a cowardly cretin with low self-esteem seems to be inaccurate), and they are often quite popular in the lower grades". These researchers found that simply teaching victims to stand up for themselves, walk away from the confrontation, or seek help from an adult rarely works. Bullies often have a knack for picking victims who are unlikely to fight back and for finding victims in unsupervised settings where they can't walk away or find an adult to help.
Effective programs, in contrast, enlist the support of the entire school community, including teachers, parents, and student bystanders, who witness an estimated 85 percent of bullying cases (Kazdin & Rotella, 2009). Effective schoolwide approaches are intensive and comprehensive; they encompass a number of strategies, including increased playground supervision and firm sanctions for bullies (Farrington & Tfoti, 2009). Just as important, the best approaches work to change the overall school climate through ongoing messages (via parent meetings and newsletters, school information, and the classroom curriculum) that help students recognize social aggression and stick up for victims. Ultimately, bullying becomes not socially beneficial, but rather socially unacceptable (Farrington & Tfoti, 2009).

The Bottom Line

Frankly, bullying comes naturally to many children. Most of us can probably remember being bullied and (with a cringe) times when we picked on others when we were in school. We had to unlearn the bad behaviors and learn how to be nice and stick up for others. It's not an easy lesson—indeed, as TV reality shows like Real Housewives of New York City demonstrate, it's a lesson that many adults still need to learn.
No matter how "natural" bullying behavior is, schools need to take it seriously. Evidence indicates that bullied children demonstrate significantly lower levels of achievement. A study of 2,300 middle school children found that victimized students had significantly lower grade point averages than nonvictimized students did; the researchers concluded that "peer victimization cannot be ignored when trying to improve educational outcomes" (Juvonen, Wang, & Espinoza, 2010). Even more important, no student should have to suffer the abuse that left Carl Walker-Hoover tragically seeking to do what his school could not—make the bullying stop.

Farrington, D., & Tfoti, M. (2009). School-based programs to reduce bullying and victimization. Washington, DC, & Oslo, Norway: Campbell Collaboration.

Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2011). Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review, 76(1), 48–73.

Josephson Institute. (2010). Josephson Institute's 2010 report card on the ethics of American youth. Los Angeles: Author. Retrieved from http://charactercounts.org/pdf/reportcard/2010/ReportCard2010_data-tables.pdf

Juvonen, J., Wang, Y., & Espinoza, G. (2010, Feburary). Bullying experiences and compromised academic performance across middle school grades. Journal of Early Adolescence, 31(1), 152–173.

Kazdin, A., & Rotella, C. (2009, August 11). Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village. Slate. Retrieved from www.slate.com/id/2249424

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Petrosino, A., Guckenburg, S., DeVoe, J., & Hanson, T. (2010). What characteristics of bullying, bullying victims, and schools are associated with increased reporting of bullying to school officials? (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2010–No. 092). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

van der Wal, M. F., de Wit, C. A., & Hirasing, R. A. (2003). Psychosocial health among young victims and offenders of direct and indirect bullying. Pediatrics, 111(6), 1312–1317.

Wilson, W. (2009, April 16). A parent's worst nightmare: The real story behind Carl Walker-Hoover's suicide. Essence. Retrieved from www.essence.com/2009/04/16/a-parents-worst-nightmare-the-real-story

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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