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The Podium

Getting the data we need to combat bullying

The three year anniversary of the suicide of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley high school student who took her life after enduring relentless bullying at the hands of her peers, passed last month with little notice. The publicity surrounding her death briefly brought bullying in schools to the fore, both in Massachusetts — where the Legislature passed a law in response — and nationally. But there is little evidence of a decline in bullying.

Unfortunately, the Massachusetts law has been widely viewed as ineffectual and under-funded. Indeed, Governor Patrick recently appointed a commission to address bullying and school safety, which suggests tha the challenge of making real inroads remains. This story of progress — or non-progress – seems to be more or less the same nationally.

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Meanwhile, young people are targeted each day by their classmates with verbal, online, and physical abuse because of how they look, their skin color, their sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or physical disability. They often suffer silently. Some sink into depression and despair.

A big part of the challenge is school leaders’ lack of awareness about what is really going on. Frightened students are often hesitant to report bullying, for fear of making themselves more of a target. As a result, even the best, ears-to-the-ground school leaders are hard-pressed to know how much bullying is occurring within their schools.

But that need not be the case. There is a way to get a clear understanding of the degree of the problem on a school-by-school and district-by-district basis. Regularly conducted, quickly turned around, confidential, third-party student surveys could allow school leaders to understand how many kids feel they are being bullied, and in what ways, and target their responses accordingly.

We have surveyed hundreds of thousands of students in over 300 high schools and middle schools in 28 states through YouthTruth, a non-profit student survey program that provides schools and districts with a better understanding of their students’ experiences. Many of our survey questions focus on perceptions of the academic experience, which we know can be an important leading indicator of academic performance. But two years ago, in response to feedback from school leaders who were concerned about the issue, we added questions about bullying.

What we see is deeply troubling. At the typical school in our dataset, nearly a quarter of high school students and a third of middle school students say they’ve been bullied in the current academic year. Nearly a third of those who said they were bullied reported being harassed online, and more than a quarter of the bullied said it got physical.

In the words of one student responding to our survey, “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.” Another student, describing being harassed online, wrote, “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.”

The rates of bullying vary widely across schools. At one extreme, fully 59 percent of students at a school whose students we surveyed reported being bullied; at the other end of the spectrum of schools, just 7 percent of students said they were bullied.

Armed with this data, school and district leaders can direct their efforts accordingly — targeting precious resources, such as school social workers, where they are needed most. Student survey data allows schools and districts to put themselves in a comparative context, gauging how they are doing relative to others. The data could also be analyzed to understand how to best address the problem: for example, are certain kinds of anti-bullying efforts correlated with lower rates of occurrence?

But, today, most school and district leaders are flying blind. Our survey program has reached just a tiny fraction of this country’s schools. Other student survey programs exist, but none has reached critical mass, and many do not even ask about bullying.

Imagine if this kind of student survey data were widely utilized and maybe even publicly reported — so parents and students knew the aggregated experience of kids in their schools. That would create powerful pressure for action on the part of schools that had a problem.

Of course, we can imagine the objections. Some argue that bullying is as old as school itself, and kids just need to learn how to cope. But tell that to Phoebe Prince’s parents, or the parents of the child relentlessly teased for being gay or physically assaulted because of the color of his skin. Our kids deserve better than to have to go to school — or turn on their computer — in abject fear of being targeted.

Others agree that bullying is a big problem but will object to relying on student surveys to understand the degree of the problem. This is perceptual data, they’ll argue, not data on actual, verified bullying incidents. Further, definitions vary — what one student sees as bullying might be seen as harmless teasing by another.

But these objections miss the point. It is the experiences of young people, their perceptions — what they feel is happening to them — that matters. They are the experts on their experience and we need to figure out how to hear them.

Let’s get the data we need on what’s going on in our schools to increase the chances we can stop the next big tragedy, in which a student takes her life in despair, from happening. And let’s drive down the rate of all the little tragedies — of kids bullied verbally and physically — that, sadly, continue to happen each and every day.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and co-founder of YouthTruth. Marny Sumrall is YouthTruth’s executive director.
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