Bullying Based on Bias Most Harmful to Students

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Bullying Based on Bias Most Harmful to Students

Jim Windell

          It wasn’t until 2014 that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education teamed up to release the first federal definition of bullying. That definition includes three core elements:

  • Unwanted aggressive behavior
  • Observed or perceived power imbalance
  • Repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors.

          Subsequent research finds that about 20% of students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying. Much of it happens in high school. Given this, it is not surprising that bullying prevention is a growing research field that investigates the complexities and consequences of bullying.

          One line of research is to parse out the different kinds of bullying and the outcomes of the varied motivations for bullying. A recent study, published in the Journal of School Violence, finds that students who feel they have been victimized because of social characteristics, such as their ethnicity or their sexuality, are at additional risk of trauma.

          Allison Kurpiel, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Pennsylvania State University, investigated data on under-18-year-olds who filled in a School Crime Supplement to the 2017 and 2019 National Crime Victimization Survey – a nationally representative household survey conducted every two years in the United States. 

          Students were asked whether in the past year anyone had made fun of them, called them names, insulted them in a hurtful way, spread rumors about them or tried to make others dislike them, threatened them, pushed, shoved, tripped or spat on them, or tried to make them do things they did not want to do, such as giving away money. They were also asked if they had been excluded on purpose from activities or had their property destroyed in a non-accidental way. 

          Those students who said they had been victimized in one or more of these ways were asked if they had ever thought this was related to their race, religion, ethnic background, disability, gender, sexual orientation or physical appearance. They were then divided into two groups: those who said they had felt their experience was the result of these types of bias, and those who said they had not. 

          Kurpiel then analyzed the impacts on the victims, asking whether those who felt they experienced more than one type of bias were more likely to suffer adverse effects than those who suffered just one. She found around a quarter of all students had been victimized in the past year, and of those, around four out of 10 felt the actions were motivated by bias. The most commonly-reported bias – around three out of 10 of those who felt bias was a factor – related to physical appearance. The most common forms of victimization were being threatened or being subject to the spreading of rumors, and these were each experienced by around two-thirds of victims. Overall, students who reported bias against them felt they had suffered a greater range of types of victimization than those who did not.  

          Kurpiel reports that, “This study adds to the rising tide of evidence demonstrating that adolescent victimization motivated by bias is uniquely impactful. And I find that victimization involving multiple bias types appears to be especially influential.

          “Students who experienced biased victimization were also more likely than nonbiased victims to perceive negative effects on their schoolwork, implying that biased victimization might contribute to lower educational achievement for minoritized groups. This association between biased victimization and impacts on schoolwork was observed for students across the academic spectrum.” 

          Kurpiel’s findings demonstrate that schools should prioritize programming that targets the reduction of biased victimization. “Failing to do so could result in the exacerbation of existing inequalities through damage to students’ self-esteem, physical health, social relationships, and educational achievement,” says Kurpiel. 

           The article of her study recommends schools should “work to raise awareness of these issues” and that prevention programs should aim, in particular, to identify students who are at risk because of multiple factors in their lives. One potential intervention suggested is to increase school organizations designed to promote inclusivity, such as Gay Straight Alliance clubs, which have been demonstrated as effective for reducing multiple types of bias-based bullying among female students who identify as LGBT.

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Kurpiel, A. (2023). Biased and Nonbiased Victimization at School: Perceived Impacts Among Victimized Youth in a National Sample. Journal of School Violence, DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2023.2272133

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