Student bullying on increase, federal statistics reveal

By SARAH HARTNIG
School of Communication
University of Miami

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the percentage of students aged 12-18 who reported being bullied at school has increased by 24.5 percent since 2003, with the latest data samples released in 2007.

The studies, conducted in 2003, 2005 and 2007, examine the relationship between students who reported being bullied and their respective characteristics, including data concerning the students’ grades, year, income, sex and race.

According to the studies, in 2003 only 7.1 percent of students reported being bullied. In 2005 that number jumped to 28.1 and in 2007 it soared to a whopping 31.7 percent. Tragically, that is a 24.6 percent rate of change between the first and third set of data sampling.

Kathi Eastham teaches English at Coral Gables Senior High School, where she has worked since 1983. A mother of two, Eastham is not surprised by the NCES findings.

“I think more is being reported,” Eastham said. “Society is more aware so people are finally saying something, with public awareness comes more reporting. People are more willing to say something because they realize they are not the only one.”

Eleanor W. Lee is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and works as an individual psychotherapist in Atlanta, Georgia. Having dealt with patients affected by incidents of bullying, Lee agrees with Eastham’s assertion.

“It is now permissible for those who are bullied to tell someone,” Lee said. “I think that now it is an open subject so it does get reported more by the kids that are being bullied.”

Interestingly, although the NCES findings did indeed break down its data by students’ grades, year, income, sex and race, there were few, if any trends or patterns within each category. Sadly, the studies were unable to pinpoint any potential reasons for why an adolescent may or may not be bullied.

Lisa Heiblum has a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and works as a research associate with the University of Miami Education and Evaluation Team (UMEET) where she has spent time visiting 28 high schools in Miami-Dade County through the University of Miami Department of Education. Also a mother of two, Heiblum offers insight on other, less tangible factors that may help to determine why a student is bullied.

“The person being bullied usually ends up being more of a sensitive type of person, they might not necessarily be introverted but they usually don’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves,” Heiblum theorized. “The first time they know they get to you, you’re done, once they know you’re an easy mark than it starts to continue and build.”

In order to help combat incidents of bullying, many schools have implemented new types of programming to educate both students and faculty members on the potential consequences of bullying. However, many of these programs do not work as they are ineffective, out-of-date and lag behind the research.

Luana Nan has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and completed her master’s thesis with bullying as her focus. Nan believes that many programs that have tried to address bullying in schools were not quite effective as they  only focused on issues relating to the bully/victim dynamic.

Nan believes that new programs need to utilize a more systemic approach. For example, according to Nan, in about 80 percent of bullying cases there are bystanders who fail to act on the victim’s behalf.

“What responsibility [do] kids who are just witnesses carry around?” Nan asked. “They need to incorporate that, too.”

Both Heiblum and Nan are concerned about the future of bullying, especially as changes in technology have all but destroyed the archetypal, “give me your milk money,” motif. Today, certain types of bullying are decidedly more difficult to spot.

Cyber-bullying, or using new forms of technology such as instant messenger, e-mail or other forms of electronic communication for bullying purposes, is definitely on the rise according to Heiblum and Nan.

“The whole fact that you could say something to someone online and not see the face or the action or the non-verbal reaction,” Heiblum said. “When you’re typing it is very insensitive and when you click ‘send’ you’re no longer taking responsibility—boom, it is done.”

Although some parents are quick to restrict their adolescent’s access to online material following incidents of cyberbullying, Nan argued that such tactics are markedly ineffective.

“Limited access to the internet doesn’t help at all, it’s not going to work because so much social activity these days is online, “ Nan said. “It would make them feel even more isolated, educate kids on how to communicate online and how to respond to inappropriate messages.”

Although many schools are adapting their curricula and creating after-school programming in order to help combat problems and issues associated with bullying, for many students such changes are simply too little, too late.

Francesca Cauce is a junior at Coral Gables Senior High and has had first hand experience dealing with bullying issues.

“In my school, somebody actually got killed, “ Cauce said. “I don’t know if you can technically say it was because of bullying, it was over a girl, but this kid was super harmless and nice.”

According to Cauce, Coral Gables Senior High now has a cellular phone that essentially serves as an anti-bullying hotline. Students and faculty alike can send text messages or make phone calls in order to report episodes of bullying.

“Its completely anonymous,” Cauce said. “To my knowledge it has been really effective, a lot of kids have gotten in trouble because people have come forward.”

Although some teachers, like Eastham, for example, choose to participate in workshops dealing specifically with sensitivity training, enrollment in such programs is neither required by the administration nor by the county.

“Certain teachers get it, they aren’t idiots,” Cauce said. “Other teachers turn a blind eye, I don’t know, I guess they have other things to worry about. If someone gets made fun of they’ll just be like ‘guys, come on,’ but I don’t feel like that’s really doing anything.”

Eastham, interestingly, agreed with Cauce.

“It depends on the teacher, hopefully we all know better,” Eastham said. “But sometimes the kid is obnoxious and its tempting to let it go marginally and then step in—it depends on what kind of bullying [we see in the classroom].”

According to Heiblum, Eastham’s assertion is not out of the ordinary.

“Part of it has come from the idea that you’re told as a teacher not to blur your boundaries and get over involved,” Heiblum said. “I know I still always tend to go towards the quieter kid—yesterday I was at a school and I saw it immediately—but you start to learn and to be told that you’re a mentor and not a friend.”

Heiblum also offers an additional explanation as to why some teachers choose to wear “blinders.”

“I think there are teachers who are just burned out,” Heiblum said.

“Teachers are asked to do so many things that parents should be doing,” Eastham said. “It is one more layer of things that teachers shouldn’t need to do in place of parents, it should be done at home.”

According to both Eastham and Heiblum, anti-bullying education needs to start at a younger age in order to be truly effective.

“We need to learn tolerance, from preschool it needs to start being addressed,” Heiblum said.

In the past few years, Eastham has noticed a growing trend within the realm of bullying behavior. According to Eastham, gay or questioning students are subjected to cruel, bullying behavior on a fairly consistent basis.

“It’s the one type of bigotry that society still somewhat allows,” Eastham said. “When it happens its male on male more than anything else.”

According to Lee, this type of bullying probably has to do with the homophobia in those who are bullying.

“Everyone goes through a homosexual identification phase [even if they don’t turn out to be gay],” Lee said. “The whole subject from a religious basis, those are strong anti-homosexual components and people are very afraid of themselves.”

Lee also explained that out-of-the-closet, gay students are less likely to be bullied.

“They’ve dealt with it,” Lee said. “They are less vulnerable to not responding when someone attacks them.”

But what should a student who is bullied do in order to place themselves into safer, happier positions? Since incidents of reported bullying have indeed increased by 24.6 percent since 2003, what can adolescents do in order to help themselves become more than just a statistic?

Heiblum believes that it is important for adolescents to find confidantes, explaining that it has to be more than a nonchalant, “you need to go to the school counselor,” sort of experience.

“It is more about being able to find somebody in a position that can do something about it,” Heiblum said. “Telling your best friend might not make any difference, you’re not talking about it with someone who can intervene. There has to be a safe person and a safe place to be able to talk.”

Eastham agrees with Heiblum, imploring her students to “speak up.”

“Tell your parents, teachers, just keep talking to adults because adults have more ways of helping than other kids do,” Eastham said.

Sadly, Eastham notes, there are still adolescents who are too afraid to say anything.

Taking Action, Getting Help

If you or someone you know is being bullied in the Miami-Dade area, log on to http://mhcms.dadeschools.net/students.asp for useful links and student support. To anonymously report incidents of bullying, call the Bullying/Harassment Anonymous Tip Hotline at 305-995-CARE.

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