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Latest research points to adverse impact of bullying on academic performance

In recent weeks, several new pieces of research have been released suggesting that the adverse impact of bullying on academic performance is significant, and most harmful to high-performing African-American and Latino students.

When it comes to public policy, both draw the same conclusion: States and school districts need to invest more in combating bullying and creating healthy school climates at all schools, not just suburban ones.

Add them to years of research by scholars in any number of disciplines and you’re left with one big, unanswered question: Why can’t we, once and for all, agree to address school climate on a policy level?

One of the studies, by researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, finds that test scores are significantly lower at high schools that report high levels of bullying.

“Our study suggests that a bullying climate may play an important role in student test performance,” said Dewey Cornell, one of the scholars who presented the research at the American Psychological Association’s recent annual convention. “This research underscores the importance of treating bullying as a school-wide problem rather than just an individual problem.”

The other (PDF), presented earlier this week at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association, suggested that stereotypes that make certain minorities out to be tough and street-wise may be one reason why high-achieving students of color seem to be particularly vulnerable.

“Stereotypes about black and Latino youth suggest that they perform poorly in school,” said Lisa Williams, a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University and the principal author of the second paper. “High achieving blacks and Latinos who do not conform to these stereotypes may be especially vulnerable to the effect bullying has on grades.”

With the new school year days away for most kids, the research is a painful reminder that almost no Minnesota schools track bullying, in part because the state lacks strong anti-bullying policies. Indeed, the law doesn’t even define what bullying is, much less describe prevention efforts districts should make.

A terrific Minnesota Public Radio investigation on the topic that aired in May found that many districts did not comply even with the existing lax law. The series included a piece that outlined what meaningful efforts to create healthy school climates look like.

All of which makes it all the more unfortunate that Minnesota lawmakers have not only failed several years running to pass comprehensive legislation, but this year actually took a step back by eliminating a state law that barred districts from balancing their budgets by cutting anti-violence programming.

The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction. This fall, it plans to release the results of a survey of state and district policies that should identify promising practices.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/27/2011 - 01:47 pm.

    While bullies are typically very insecure themselves, that doesn’t make a confrontation with a bully any more pleasant for the one being bullied. This strikes me as a situation where common sense runs smack into the right wing mantra of “nanny state.” Add to that the fact that bullying – at least in some respects – doesn’t even have to incorporate actual violence to have its desired effect. Plenty of kids have been intimidated by vague threats and crude, in-your-face language that doesn’t approach any sort of measurable threshold for “violence,” but nonetheless serves as an effective means, at least in some cases, to terrorize.

    The same people with bumper stickers saying “My kid can beat up your honor student” are likely to be the ones at the school board meeting loudly opposing any attempt on the part of the state to make wimps of us all by imposing some sort of “anti-violence” policy that, at least in their view, will mostly create yet another layer of bureaucracy without actually doing very much to stop bullying. While I’m reluctant to agree – about anything – with people who’d display one of those bumper stickers, it nonetheless seems to me that “anti-violence” legislation, while one way to approach the problem, is not the only way, and might not even be the most effective.

    I remain skeptical that morality can be legislated, and bullying is, at its essence, a moral issue. Terrorizing other children so that you can get your way, or simply to enjoy seeing them suffer, is not morally justifiable. To change that mind set requires – I hesitate to even mention this – wholesale changes in attitude as well as behavior. Sports fans won’t want to talk about this, much less admit to any degree of connection, but Minnesotans, much like other Americans, spend an awful lot of time and money admiring the aggressive behavior of star players – some actual athletes, some not so much – in a plethora of professional sports. It’s not limited to males at all – I coached high school girls for 15 seasons, and watched the same behavior in that context, too. Hockey glorifies fighting and aggression, football almost as much, basketball has transformed in half a century from a kind of aerial ballet to a contest of knocking people down and elbows to the face. Lacross, rugby, and numerous others celebrate physical domination and confrontation.

    We live in a society that worships aggression to a significant degree, and bullying is all about aggression. Americans, even though they don’t practice what they preach in this context either, admire aggression even though it’s often counterproductive. Successful enterprises by the thousands all require and demand the suppression of individual ego and the adoption of a strong ethic of teamwork, yet we continue to subscribe to a mythology of individual aggressive behavior as a model upon which to build. There are not now, nor have there ever been, successful societies that relied upon the theology of selfishness promoted by Ayn Rand, yet it’s not difficult to find people who believe in all sincerity that if only we’d adopt Rand’s “philosophy,” most of our social and economic problems would vanish.

    Ain’t gonna happen.

    Nor will “anti-violence” policies necessarily magically reverse the negative effects of bullying. Until parents and peers both reinforce, relentlessly, that just because you CAN intimidate someone doesn’t mean you SHOULD, I think we’ll have a hard time making much progress on this issue. Bullies need to be confronted, whether their behavior and language are overtly “violent” or not, and they need to be taught other ways of responding to whatever pressures from peers, media, parents, etc., they’re reacting to if significant progress is to be made. That requires a society-wide effort that, frankly, I don’t see coming over the horizon.

    While I first heard the syndrome described many years ago, it seems apparent that “crabs in a bucket” is a behavior model that continues to operate among minority kids, to the detriment of them individually, their communities collectively, and ultimately to the detriment of Minnesota and the nation. As long as the kids who do the bullying are able to get away with it, with the support of their parents and peers, genuine progress on this issue will be minuscule, at best.

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