One in three California middle school and high school students reported having been harassed or bullied at least once in the previous year, according to new data from a statewide student survey.
Thirty-four percent of students in grades 7, 9 and 11 said they had been bullied one or more times, according to the 2011-13 California Healthy Kids Survey, which is administered by the California Department of Education. That rate is roughly the same as the 33 percent of students in those grades who reported having been bullied in the 2009-11 California Healthy Kids Survey, although that survey used different methodology. (See map below for county-by-county data on bullying reported in 2011-13 by seventh graders.)
Nationally, the percentage of students who report having been bullied has decreased slightly or remained the same in recent years, said John Kelly, a board member of the National Association of School Psychologists, a Maryland-based membership organization.
“You’ve got to have a skilled, socially intelligent teacher in the classroom,” said Bridget Early, a social worker at Everett Middle School in San Francisco. “When kids say mean things, the teacher can squash it right then.”
In recent years, widely publicized bullying incidents, including the anti-gay harassment of Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old gay student from Tehachapi who committed suicide in 2010, have led to federal and state laws, including Assembly Bill 9, known as Seth’s Law, in California, that require schools to do more to protect student safety. Studies have found that schools can reduce bullying through research-based approaches that build relationships and social skills, establish behavior norms and foster empathy.
“It’s a lot about how classroom culture is set up,” said Bridget Early, a social worker at Everett Middle School in San Francisco. “You’ve got to have a skilled, socially intelligent teacher in the classroom,” she said. “When kids say mean things, the teacher can squash it right then.”
At Everett, she said, classroom teachers hold weekly classroom circles to check in with students on topics including bullying, are coached to create a welcoming environment including greeting students with a smile, and use social and emotional strategies as part of classroom instruction. One such strategy is the Good Behavior Game, in which middle school students and teachers decide which classroom behaviors they’d like to see reduced, such as talking out of turn, and then teams of students compete to follow the rule and win a prize. The Good Behavior Game has been widely studied and proven to have long-term effects on students’ mental health, alcohol and drug use and smoking.
The bullying data come as school districts in California are newly required by the State Board of Education to create a written plan for a positive “school climate,” to be measured by surveying students, teachers and parents about their sense of safety at school, among other indicators. These efforts must be part of districts’ three-year planning documents, known as Local Control and Accountability Plans, which first took effect on July 1, 2014.
Districts will be updating their planning documents, including their school climate improvement initiatives, this spring. “It’s a time for districts to pay attention to what they’re actually doing, and whether it’s having any effect,” said Gregory Austin, director of the Health and Human Development program at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization that designed the California Healthy Kids Survey. WestEd has created a “What Works” brief that describes what teachers and administrators can do to reduce bullying, including being “visible, active and interested” in how students are behaving, particularly in unstructured times such as passing periods between classes.
As defined by WestEd, a positive school climate includes caring relationships between teachers and students, physical and emotional safety, and academic and emotional supports that help students succeed – the opposite of a school culture where bullying is ignored.
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education identified three key elements of bullying: unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.
Seventh-grade students reported the highest rates of bullying or harassment, with 39 percent saying they’d experienced one or more incidents. Rates declined somewhat as students moved to higher grades, with 34 percent of 9th-graders and 27 percent of 11th-graders reporting having been bullied. The data were released on Kidsdata.org, a project of the Palo Alto-based Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.
The difficulties for middle school students were reflected in a related survey in which 51 percent of middle school teachers – compared to 27 percent of elementary school teachers and 39 percent of high school teachers – said bullying was a moderate or severe problem at their school. That data is from the 2011-13 California School Climate Survey, administered by the California Department of Education.
Race or national origin was the leading reason cited by students to explain why they were targeted for bullying in all grades. The second most common reason was that peers thought the student was gay or lesbian, the analysis said.
Higher percentages of African-American, Asian-American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students reported bullying incidents, compared to students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The 50 largest school districts in California have all listed actions they will take to address school climate in their planning documents, according to a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California. Seventy percent say they plan to implement positive discipline approaches that emphasize building relationships with students or allowing them to make amends, rather than taking more punitive actions. These approaches include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Restorative Practices or restorative justice, and social emotional learning.
- National Education Association, Bully Free School Climate Summit Conference Proceedings, 2014
- Bullying & Hate-Motivated Behavior Prevention, California Department of Education
- Jury Verdicts and Settlements in Bullying Cases, Public Justice, September 2014
A 2012 study published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a framework that uses an array of programs and a database to track behavior incidents and interventions, had a significant effect in reducing bullying incidents reported by teachers.
The 2011-13 California Healthy Kids Survey departed from previous methodology by collecting data from a randomly selected group of 109 secondary schools that are representative of the state. Participating districts were given a financial incentive to administer the survey, in order to insure that the results would be representative enough to fulfill the state requirement that students in grades 7, 9 and 11 be surveyed every two years on substance use.
Previous California Healthy Kids Surveys have collected data from as many as 1 million California students, but a 2010 federal funding change led to a decline in the number of schools participating. Districts across the state continue to administer the survey and analyze results about student behavior, health and sense of connection to school.