SCHOOL BULLYING and ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
Feller (2003) defines school bullying as “aggressive and repeated behavior based on an imbalance of power among people” adding that “it ranges from slapping, kicking and other physical abuse to verbal assaults to the new frontier: cyberbullying, in which kids use e-mail and Web sites to humiliate others.” Feller details the pervasiveness and extent of bullying behavior in school and discloses data from a 2001 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study suggesting that bullying in school begins in kindergarten, peaks in middle school, and affects approximately one-third of all students, amounting to millions of victims annually. In that regard, Feller also cautions that traditional attitudes toward school bullying are part of the problem in that many adults consider bullying to be a natural part of growing up that all students must simply learn to deal with.
According to Feller, that estimate does not include the student adversely affected by the fear of bullying of others that they witness, which is likely to result in harm to them despite not being victimized by bullies directly. Feller also suggests that the link between bullying and decreased academic performance is obvious by virtue of the extent to which victims of bullying suffer from acute symptoms of depression causing them to miss school out of their fear of bullying classmates.
Feller corroborates those conclusions with the observations of educators like national safety consultant for school principals Bill Bond, who was principal of the Paducah, Kentucky school where a freshman victim of school bullying eventually reacted by shooting eight students including three fatally. According to Bond, the fear of violent intimidation and constant humiliation directly undermines the effort to perform well academically. That view is confirmed by students themselves. Feller presents specific statements to that effect from a 9th grade Connecticut victim of bullying who relates that “You can’t think clearly. You’re preoccupied trying to figure out why they would say this,” and that “It can distract you from your school work, your community, even from your friends. It really does start to get to you.”
Jonsson (2004) relates similar experiences detailing the abuse suffered by a 7th grade North Carolina student in school. Previously, he had been a straight a student and a recipient of the President’s Award for academic achievement. After being regularly tormented by fellow students who punched him and subjected him to other forms of physically abusive conduct on a regular basis, his academic performance suffered dramatically and he became withdrawn, often refusing to talk about school at all at home.
That particular student’s mother happened to sit on the local school board but eventually resigned in protest after her requests to remove her son from the class in which he suffered the abuse were denied, purportedly for academic reasons despite the fact that his lower performance was directly attributable to bullying in that class. In her argument leading up to her resignation, that student’s mother specifically warned that her son “…can’t learn anything if he’s scared to death,” and added that “Complacency is unacceptable,” referring to the unwillingness of the school board to recognize or address the seriousness of the school bullying issue and its effects on academic performance among its victims.
Jonsson further explains that school bullying begins in kindergarten to an extent not generally appreciated. Specifically, a recent study conducted by a Wichita State University psychologist revealed that kindergarten students in one Kansas school studied bullied each other as frequently as once every six minutes. Jonsson also presents the conclusions of another psychologist, from the University of California, that school bullying victims tend to suffer in silence, making it more difficult to quantify the problem accurately.
Jonsson reports that experts estimate that there are nearly 4 million school bullies in the United States school system just in the 6th through 10th grades and that as many as 20% of their victims suffer significant long-term problems associated with their victimization, including decreased academic performance, violence, and even suicidal thoughts. Like Feller (2003), Jonsson suggests that even students not directly victimized by school bullying suffer real consequences such as fear of repercussion for intervening as well as shame from their inability to help victims whose abuse they witness in silence.
Peters (2002) echoes the concerns of Feller (2003) and Jonsson (2004) with respect to the “implicit tolerance” that often characterizes the attitude of school administrators in response to complaints about bullying behavior in school. Peters suggests that a no-nonsense and zero-tolerance approach to implicit tolerance and emphasizes the need to pursue complaints as far up the school administration chain of command as necessary to achieve results. Similarly, Peters confirms the conclusions of other researchers and experts in the field of school psychology that bullying affects victims profoundly and presents specific problems with regard to maintaining high academic performance and also with respect to positive self-image formation that often persist far beyond the school years.
Peters acknowledges that bullying behavior cuts across all ages and grades and affects both male and female students, but recommends different approaches to addressing bullying based in the specific forms that it tends to take between the genders.
Whereas boys tend to bully through physical intimidation and violence, girls are much more likely to perpetuate bullying through indirect social exclusion and ridicule. Peters offers suggestions that include modeling non-violence at home and greater sensitivity and empathy, respectively.
Peters also details the characteristics of both bullies and their victims, explaining that her research contradicts the conventional wisdom that bullies suffer from low self- esteem. According to Peters, polls of bullies actually suggest that many of them consider themselves to be leaders among their peer groups and that bullying behaviors are another form of conduct likely to increase their relative status and leadership. Conversely, Peters’ characterization of victims of school bullying comports with traditional observations that students who are smaller, less attractive, socially unskilled, and those who suffer from obesity or any other apparent deformity or physical affliction or abnormality are the most likely to be targeted by bullies. Hutton (2006), a National School Boards Association staff attorney presents the results of extensive questionnaires of 50,000 high school students in 15 urban environments documenting the extent of school bullying. Hutton also reports that local school boards have finally begun the necessary shift from tacitly ignoring if not actually condoning school bullying to recognition of the potential damaging effect that school bullying has on its victims, particularly in the area of academic performance.
At the same time, Hutton reports certain objections encountered from administrators to the no-tolerance approach to school bullying out of concern that other forms of misconduct in school are much more serious and that blurring the lines between them presents a risk of minimizing more dangerous concerns. Hutton also raises the issue of constitutionally protected speech in the context of statements of religious objections to homosexual orientation, acknowledging that verbal abuse in relation to same-sex preference can be particularly vicious in schools.
Wright (2004) confirms many of the conclusions presented by Peters (2002), especially with respect to the empowerment aspect of bullying on the perpetrators and the fundamental characteristic differences between the direct forms of bullying instigated by boys and the indirect “reputational” forms of character assassinations often implemented by girls in the victim’s absence. Wright departs from other researchers’ conclusions only with regard to the behavior of non-participant observers who witness bullying incidents without becoming involved either as perpetrators or as victims.
Specifically, Wright suggests that non-participant observers are actually complicit in the bullying more often than they are victimized indirectly by observing bullying incidents involving other students. Wright maintains that bystanders are much more likely to provide at least passive encouragement or tacit approval to the bully than to come to the assistance of the victim by intervening or calling it to the attention of teachers or other adults capable of helping. However, as pertains to the detrimental effect on academic performance of the victims of school bullying, Wright absolutely concurs with the conclusions of Feller (2003), Jonsson (2004), Peters (2002), and Hutton (2006).
Feller, B. (2003) the Associated Press; U.S. Frames Bullying as Health Issue
Hutton, T. (2006) NSBA Leadership Insider: Practical Perspectives on School Law & Policy; No Rite of Passage: Coming to Grips with Harassment and Bullying.
Jonsson, P. (2004) the Christian Science Monitor; Schoolyard Bullies and Their Victims: The Picture Fills Out. Peters, R. (2002) Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control. New York: Rodale.
Wright, J. (2004) Preventing Classroom Bullying: What Teachers Can Do. Interventioncentral.org
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