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Maryland Is Successfully Eliminating School Bullies

May 10, 2017, 09:40:00
By Steve Williams, Care2

A new study appears to show that, over the past decade, bullying incidents have fallen significantly across Maryland. Why is this, and what can we learn from these important findings?

The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed the experiences of more than 250,000 students from across 109 elementary, middle and schools in the state.

The study examined bullying trends over the past decade and used a range of 13 standard indicators to gauge school climate and type of bullying, including physical bullying, verbal abuse or cyberbullying.

In terms of general trends, the results were encouraging. In an accompanying summary, the researchers note:

Looking collectively at all ages, researchers saw statistically significant improvement in 10 of the indicators. In 2014, 13.4% of students reported being bullied in the past month down from a peak of 28.8% in 2007. Roughly 7.1% of students in 2014 reported bullying other children, down from 21.3% in 2005. Both metrics went down nearly every year and were at or near their lowest in 2014.

About 42.7% of students said they witnessed bullying in 2014, down from a high of 66.4% in 2005. Roughly 88.5% of students in 2014 said they felt safe in school, up from a low of 76.4% in 2006.

There were some additional areas of improvement too. Cyberbullying has been a major focus for policymakers as they have grappled with the challenges brought by emerging technology and social media connectivity.

There are signs that this attention is paying off: Only 3.6 percent of all youth reported cyberbullying in 2014, down from nearly 8 percent in 2010. Obviously, because technology evolves rapidly, tracking this incarnation of bullying can be difficult.

That said, this downward trend remains encouraging, particularly because cyberbullying tends to be among the most insidious and hard to combat. After all, this type of abuse can reach young people even when they are at home or in otherwise “safe spaces.”

Bullying is often associated with high school, but this longitudinal study actually showed that it tended to peak in middle school. This valuable insight suggests that middle school students may be at particular risk of being both victim and bully, and allows us to establish intervention strategies.

The study also showed that while some groups of children in the sample said that adults were doing enough to address bullying, when the researchers adjusted for various factors, this confidence appeared to slip away. The researchers want to study aspect of their findings more closely to ascertain what’s going on.

The researchers are keen to stress that while the data does look positive, bullying remains a significant problem.

In total, across the decade studied, between 13 and 29 percent of all students claimed they had been bullied within the month immediately preceding the survey. While rates of verbal and physical bullying have fallen, they continue to be a problem in our schools.

Stephen Leff, of the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained: “[bullying] rates are not falling quickly enough.” Leff also makes a valid point about the study, noting, “While rates of all types of bullying are declining, the study did not look at impact. For instance, while cyber-bullying rates were quite low, a single incident can have a devastating impact on victims and schools, because can it be observed by so many students over and over.”

This is a critical point, and one that should be noted in future research. Nevertheless, this study is robust for its specific focus, and so there are reasons to be optimistic.

Readers familiar with this issue may recall that in 2013 Maryland adopted Grace’s Law, named after a Howard County teen who took her own life after her peers bullied her online. The legislation makes it illegal to bully someone under the age of 18 through use of a smartphone or computer, leading to a $500 fine or up to a year in prison.

However, the law has received a mixed reaction. While some have called it landmark legislation that finally addresses cyberbullying, others say it is a fast-track to getting young people into the justice system when what they really need is rehabilitation. Critics charge that Grace’s Law could do far more harm than good.

Many are also uncomfortable with the way in which bullying laws can invite greater involvement in school policy from law enforcement. Texas is currently considering a law modeled on Maryland’s legislation, known as David’s Law. The conversation continues to evolve over what constitutes appropriate action on bullying.

It’s clear that action on bullying is still needed in Maryland and throughout the U.S., but only sensitive and evidence-based policies will ultimately provide the best school environment for our children.