Libertarian magazine editor claims in Wall Street Journal op ed that there’s no bullying crisis in schools
April 2, 2012
By Scottie Thomaston
The Wall Street Journal recently featured an essay written by Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason Online, a libertarian site. The title of the essay proclaims that we all need to “Stop Panicking About Bullies” because there really is not a huge national problem with bullying:
But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it.
Gillespie says that parents are just being overprotective and hyperbolic. There is nothing to see here, he suggests. Even more strange, he claims that the numbers prove that bullying isn’t a real problem:
Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse.
So let’s look at the numbers.
In January, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released a study on bullying in elementary schools. The study was a follow-up to the first national study to research bullying in America’s schools. As I wrote in January:
In 2005, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released a study conducted by Harris Interactive – “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America – A National Report on School Bullying” – that looked at “students’ and teachers’ experiences with bullying and harassment.” They interviewed 3,450 students aged 13 to 18 and 1,011 secondary school teachers. It was the first national study that took on the topic of bullying in America’s schools.
Not surprisingly, 65% of students reported that they had been bullied within the year in which the study was conducted “because of their perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability or religion.” The purpose of the study was to gain information in order to help raise awareness in schools across the country about the prevalence of bullying and the need for outreach, education and policies that would lead to a safer environment for students.
That was the 2005 study, on students who were 13-18 years old. The January study on students in elementary school suggests:
Three-fourths of students (75%) report that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity. Most commonly this is because of students’ looks or body size (67%), followed by not being good at sports (37%), how well they do at schoolwork (26%), not conforming to traditional gender norms/roles (23%) or because other people think they’re gay (21%).
And in particular the study took notice of the type of language used in elementary schools against students while they are being bullied:
The most common forms of biased language in elementary schools, heard regularly (i.e., sometimes, often or all the time) by both students and teachers, are the use of the word “gay” in a negative way, such as “that’s so gay,” (students: 45%, teachers: 49%) and comments like “spaz” or “retard” (51% of students, 45% of teachers). Many also report regularly hearing students make homophobic remarks, such as “fag” or “lesbo” (students: 26%, teachers: 26%) and negative comments about race/ethnicity (students: 26%, teachers: 21%).
And this type of behavior might seem bad in elementary school, but it actually escalates when students enter middle school. This would provide an excellent opportunity to start addressing this bullying as early as possible so that middle school kids can make it through their days without the constant harassment:
These two studies together, the first one addressing middle school and high school students, and this one addressing elementary school students, show that bullying and antagonistic behavior toward people “based on appearance” may start early on in schools but the study adds more weight to the idea that bullying is more prevalent among middle school students, meaning that the older you get, the more bullying you could experience. If teachers started to address these problems and discuss the lives and struggles of people who are LGBT directly, perhaps the number of students in middle schools and high schools who are bullied and harassed could decrease with time.
This doesn’t sound like overzealous, overprotective parents to me. Just these studies alone point to an extreme bullying problem in our schools. And despite the WSJ’s claims that parents are panicking over bullying, and their assertions about “shrinking violet” city boys and girls, it seems the real hyperbolic and dramatic fear comes from the right-wing and it is a fear that people who bully or permit bullying might be subjected to “more lawsuits against schools and bullies, many of which will stretch the limits of empathy and patience.”
But if still more evidence is required to show that bullying is prevalent and pervasive, here is a bit more:
Last year, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that nine out of ten have witnessed the cyberbullying of their peers. A similar Associated Press-MTV poll found that about half of young people regularly encounter discriminatory slang in their online communications, and 54 percent of them think it’s okay to use such language in their circle of friends because “I know we don’t mean it.”
In addition, even if in-school bullying is no more severe than when Gillespie grew up, plenty of new studies demonstrate severe long-term consequences from that bullying that implore a better response than just telling young people to tolerate “lower-level harassment.” For example, LGBT youth who are targeted for their identities are 5.6 times more likely to experience mental health challenges as they age, such as depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. In fact, one study has shown that anti-gay stigma can lead to suicidal thoughts that last a lifetime.
It’s unsurprising that Gillespie shied away from discussing anti-LGBT bullying, which is where the “supposed crisis” is most exacerbated. According to GLSEN’s climate survey from 2009 (more recent than the data Gillespie cites), nine out of ten LGBT students experience anti-gay harassment at school.
Of course, those studies addressed all sorts of bullying, but since they tended to focus on bullying of LGBT kids, it’s important to point out that bullying against other groups happens at alarming rates as well. Studies show that students with disabilities face bullying in school at higher rates:
For example, Little’s (2002) study of U.S. mothers found that 94% of children with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome faced peer victimization, with a broad swatch of different types of victimization including emotional bullying (75%), gang attacks (10%) and nonsexual assaults to the genitals (15%).
Other research (Siebeker, Swearer, and Lieske, 2005; and Regional Education Laboratory, 2010) has indicated that students with a wide range of disabilities face increased bullying victimization, including students with visible and invisible disabilities, students with physical, developmental, intellectual, emotional and sensory disabilities and others. A 2003 study found that 34% of students who report taking medication for ADHD face bullying victimization at least 2-3 times a month, a substantial increase over the rate of bullying victimization from other students surveyed (Unnever and Cornell, 2003). Wiener and Mak (2009) also found high rates of victims among girls with Attention Deficit and Hypertension Disabilities. Langevin, Bortnick, Hammer and Wiebe’s (1998), a Canadian study examining the relationship between stuttering and selection as a target for bullying, found that at least 59% of students studied were bullied about their stuttering, 69% of students who stutter were also bullied about other things and that said bullying very frequently takes place on at least a weekly basis.
Racial stigma also persists in schools and affects learning, friendships and many other facets of the school environment. As the GLSEN study noted, racial epithets are hurled at even elementary school kids. When Lawrence King was murdered, we forget to note that he was shot by a white supremacist and race played a part in the trial and media coverage along with the fact that he was gay.
So, yes, America really is in the midst of a bullying crisis. It’s certainly not new, despite the recent uptick in media coverage. It continues whether or not the mainstream media chooses to follow it. But it’s a serious issue nonetheless.