“Everyone here is either bullying someone or being bullied. The teachers say if you have a problem, go see them — but they do nothing about it.”
“They say they have a zero tolerance for bullying which is A COMPLETE LIE. People are bullied, they try to get help, and then they get NO HELP and continue to get bullied.”
“I think that the school should be more controlling on cyber-bullying. They are not aware that their students are being bullied or harassed on social media.”
“I wish that the person who sent me those messages knew how much that hurt, and that I would go to sleep crying ... and be so tired at school because of crying at night.”
These are four of thousands of anonymous comments from students about bullying in their schools. The pain and frustration they describe are hard to take — but in some school districts, what the students are experiencing is very different from what their teachers and principals think is going on.
That’s why, in conjunction with National Bullying Prevention Month this October, a nonprofit called YouthTruth released data gathered from 80,000 students in 21 states between the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2015. Their schools, which pay YouthTruth to conduct candid, anonymous surveys of students, are split among urban, suburban and rural areas, are varied in wealth and size, and span the country from the East to West coasts, the South and the Midwest.
Nationwide, YouthTruth found that 25 percent of students reported having been bullied, echoing the results of other national studies. But far more important for teachers and administrators is that the organization reports specific findings back to each individual school, including students’ comments.
These reports have shown a tremendous disconnect between teachers’ perceptions and what their students say is happening in their school hallways, cafeterias and classrooms.
Educators reading these personal surveys feel concern, confusion and worry, said Georgeanne Warnock, associate superintendent of Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas. “When we’re looking at [what our students are reporting about bullying], it’s easy to dismiss or be defensive or in denial of what students are saying,” she said.
“Then,” she added, “we have to focus on how we keep making it better.”
A wake-up call for school districts
Warnock has worked with YouthTruth for three years to collect bullying data. She remembers students communicating in a survey that they didn’t feel teachers understood what happened to them outside school, while teachers believed they were aware.
To help bridge this divide, one school in Warnock’s district formed an eight-to-nine-member student panel whose members attended school faculty meetings and provided additional feedback on the survey data. Another school created a tip box for students to alert teachers to instances of bullying, and, during advisory and homeroom classes, students discussed kindness and empathy. Some students, Warnock said, have come forward to report cyberbullying of their peers.
As a result, she said, the district’s bullying rates have declined over the past three years by 3 to 4 percent overall, and in some schools by as much as 15 percent.
George Steinhoff, superintendent of the Penn-Delco district in suburban Philadelphia, said the data confirmed what his middle school principal, L.J. Blair, had been reporting, but he still called the findings revealing. Steinhoff said he would visit the middle and high schools in his district and see happy, hardworking students, but stories would surface of students fighting off-campus or belittling one another on social media.
“I had the sense that the community perspective about the middle school was different from what I observed and what the kids were experiencing,” Steinhoff said. “I thought it was important to take a survey to the students and get their perspectives about what they’re feeling at the school.”
The data showed administrators that there was a disparity between how they and the students defined bullying. Students reported being verbally harassed in person and online, while some adults assumed that if bullying occurred, it would look like physical aggression. The data showed the district’s middle school and high school had bullying rates that nearly matched the national average of 25 percent.
In response, school counselors talked to students who were identified as cyberbullying their peers. Staff monitored the cafeteria, where bullying had been reported, and tried to actively tout the school motto of “Encourage, empower, excel.” The middle school created an emotional-support class for students who were identified as emotionally disturbed, Blair said, and a mentoring program for students who were bullying others.
A hard look in the mirror
“Even the most mature and enlightened school and district leader can find it difficult to look at the data,” said Sonya Heisters, YouthTruth’s director of partnerships. “We remind partners of why they’re doing this work, and why does this matter.”
A 2010 UCLA report showed that students are more likely to struggle academically if they are bullied, which makes school-based interventions particularly important. Prevention programs have been shown to decrease bullying by 20 to 23 percent.
“It really goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Warnock said. “If I don’t feel a sense of belonging and security, it’s hard to move into academic learning.”
In addition to reporting on overall rates of bullying, the YouthTruth surveys found a bullying gap among schools: Rates ranged from a high of 59 percent to a low of 12 percent. (No research has been conducted on whether geography or income are factors in this disparity.)
Students reported verbal harassment as the most common form of bullying, at 79 percent. This was followed by social harassment at 50 percent and physical bullying at 29 percent. Only 25 percent reported cyberbullying, though the survey found cyberbullying was closely connected to in-person harassment.
While that low rate may be surprising in light of the popularity of mobile devices among teens, Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, pointed out that cyberbullying is easy to track with a screenshot, while verbal harassment requires little energy, is hard to prove and can slip under the radar of adults.
The majority of students — 44 percent — said they are bullied because of how they look. That was followed by 16 percent of students who attributed bullying to their race or skin color and 14 percent who believed it was related to their sexuality.
The bullying questionnaire is part of a larger, voluntary school-climate survey that lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. At each school, the participation rate is about 75 to 85 percent of students. Questions delve into the type of bullying and perceived reasons behind it:
“During this school year, have other students bullied or harassed you...
- physically? (Examples: pushed, tripped, or hit you; taken or broken your belongings on purpose)
- verbally? (Examples: called you names or made fun of you; threatened you; made inappropriate comments to you)
- socially? (Examples: tried to get other students not to be friends with you; spread rumors or told secrets about you; embarrassed you in front of others)
- Check here if you have experienced any cyberbullying during this school year. (Examples: mean text messages or emails; rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites; pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles)
- I’m not sure
- I have not been bullied or harassed during this school year”
(Read The 74 Flashcards : How to Confront Bullying in Schools)
The responses — “millions of lines of qualitative comments,” as Heisters put it — go back to the schools in a report seven business days after students take the survey. From there, the nonprofit offers debriefing calls and in-person workshops.
Devising interventions requires a “multi-tiered” approach, Hertzog said, because one-stop solutions like assemblies don’t reach the students who need to hear the message. Teachers need to be trained to spot bullying, and students need to feel empowered to support peers who are being harassed, she said.
“Encouraging student involvement is so important,” Hertzog said. “It’s important for kids to say, ‘We don’t accept this in our schools.’”
Andrew Brennen, national field director at Student Voice, said he sees a disconnect between students and educators in his work at the organization, which seeks to incorporate more student input into global education conversations. For example, when he administered a survey for Student Voice at a middle school in central Kentucky, he found that two thirds of students reported bullying as a major problem but two thirds of faculty members did not.
“The YouthTruth survey is important because it helps to highlight more and more some of these disconnects between reality and perception, and perception is reality in a lot of cases when it comes to bullying,” Brennen said.
If you are a student and are looking for resources on bullying, visit pacer.org/bullying/resources/
If you are an educator who is looking for training resources on preventing bullying, visit stopbullying.gov