Study by UVM finds broader effects of student bullying

Bernice Garnett
University of Vermont associate professor Bernice Garnett is a public health prevention scientist. Photo courtesy of UVM

Students who experience the triple threat of bullying, harassment and cyberbullying don’t feel safe at school, have poorer grades and are at long-term emotional risk, according to a study by researchers at the University of Vermont.

“Students become really disengaged with their school community. They feel unsafe at school and don’t feel like their teachers treat students equitably across race and gender,” said lead author and associate professor Bernice Raveche Garnett.

She is calling for changes in the way schools handle bullying. Look at the effect on the entire school climate, not just who is being bullied, she said.

The study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, analyzed survey results on school climate from about 2,500 Vermont students from 12 middle and high schools.

Researchers at UVM’s College of Education and Social Services were looking into whether the effect on school climate is different when students are victims of more than one kind of harassment.

More than 40 percent of students surveyed said they had been a victim of one kind of harassment during the school year. Just over a third said they were bullied; 21 percent experienced cyberbullying; and 16 percent were harassed because of their skin color, beliefs, sex, disability, origin or sexual identity.

The study found that each time a student experienced more than one kind of bullying, there was a cumulative negative affect. Other studies have focused on just one issue, such as bullying, but combining them into one study showed a more dramatic impact on the school’s climate.

Bullying is a hot topic right now, Garnett said, but she would like to see the study change the conversation from just “be nicer to each other” to what is putting students more at risk of becoming victims.

“I’m hoping this will create a ripple effect where teachers, students and parents are asking questions about why and finding more powerful responses,” she said, adding that she hopes it will inspire targeted training and professional development.

The Agency of Education’s pilot survey on Vermont school climate delved into school safety, feelings of connection to the school community, equity, bullying, hazing and harassment. Students were polled from February to May in 2015. They were asked about the current school year, except when it came to cyberbullying, and then they were asked just about the last 30 days.

This slightly limited the author’s ability to find students who were victims of all three types of harassment at the same time and means the research may only scratch the surface of the problem.

The only other limitation was demographics. “Vermont is a pretty white state. It limits the generalizability of our findings in more diverse states,” Garnett said, before adding that researchers picked schools for their racial and societal diversity.

One unexpected finding was that wealth plays a role in who gets picked on. “Income was a prominent reason kids said they felt discriminated against,” she said. The concern was there aren’t laws that protect someone for being poor, as there are for race and sexual orientation.

These findings add to the body of research on transgender students who experience much more bullying, harassment and cyberattacks than their peers. Building a positive and affirming atmosphere in schools can help reduce bullying, suicides and substance abuse, according to the study.

Most of the school climate research so far comes from the national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which asks about sexual orientation but not gender identity. Vermont’s survey is unique because it does ask this.

“It is important to ask students not just about their sexual orientation but also gender identity,” Garnett said. “Vermont is leading the way in terms of trying to protect transgender students with our bullying laws. We need to know if gender identification in addition to sexual orientation is being targeted.”

If the goal of education is for students to be academically successful, then school climate matters, according to the author. “This needs to be taken seriously because it can have an extreme negative impact on school success academically, and that is the reason we have schools to begin with,” Garnett said.

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