This is Part 1 of my 2017 update on bullying and cyberbullying in the U.S. Part 2 will be insights from students themselves.
If we want schools to be safe for all kids, we cannot ignore the direct connections between bullying, sexual harassment and homophobic name-calling in middle school. That’s according to groundbreaking research presented by University of Florida psychology professor Dorothy Espelage in her latest talk. One of the U.S.’s leading bullying researchers, she was speaking in Washington at the American Psychological Association, which just honored her with a lifetime achievement award.
“Bullying leads to homophobic name-calling,” which is prevalent in middle school, Dr. Espelage said, “and it also predicts sexual harassment perpetration in middle school” and high school, as well as dating violence in high school, as well as at colleges and universities.
A major new study by Harris Poll for GLSEN found that 55% of students aged 13-18 hear peers saying “that’s so gay” often or very often, 43% other homophobic terms often or very often, and a quarter (25.5%) hear school staff “make negative remarks related to students’ gender expression.”
Factor gender into bullying prevention
Espelage and her colleagues have found that students as young as 5th and 6th graders commonly use that terminology, as many parents know – “especially when boys do not act masculine and girls do not act feminine,” as kids collectively define those terms. “We found that such homophobic language is used to assert power over other students…and start to sexually harass members of the opposite sex to demonstrate that they are not gay,” she wrote.
Even though most bullying prevention programs don’t factor in gender, they need to, she said in her talk. “We have to recognize that this socialization process, this homophobia and sexual harassment that happens to both boys and girls happens way before we send them to college.
“If we continue to do this [bullying prevention] work in schools with no gender lens, we’re going to continue to fall short,” she said. On the other hand, “if we address homophobic name-calling … we’ll have much improved lives for middle school students, and [this prevention work] will be relevant to them.” She mentioned one brave 7th grader who told her that he was just so done with the name-calling and didn’t understand why the questions the researchers were asking them didn’t look at the kind of aggressive behavior that irritated and disturbed students like him the most.
Other key highlights from a very comprehensive talk:
- Social emotional learning is powerful: “Out of the gate, after just 15 lessons” (out of 41 SEL lessons that 3,600 6th-8th-graders received over a three-year study), her research turned up a “major reduction in physical fighting”: 42%, “where most programs predict a 3% reduction,” she said. “By Year 3, Second Step [the SEL program they used in the study] had reduced all forms of victimization – including for kids with a disability.” The findings, reinforced what many of us have come to see, including me: that SEL instruction would benefit every student and every school, especially now that social media is part of the school climate mix. In her talk, Espelage also pointed to studies showing its positive impact on students’ academic performance as well as school climate, “and it works at multiple levels of society.” [Here‘s what SEL teaches.]