Bullying takes an academic toll, too

The UFT School Safety Department held an Anti-Bullying Fair at union headquarter Miller Photography

The UFT School Safety Department held an Anti-Bullying Fair at union headquarters on March 1 for hundreds of educators, parents and city leaders.

Bullying may not be new. Its causes may be unclear. Its treatment may be controversial. But its impact has been shown to be very far-reaching indeed.

What’s more, the impact is not only social and emotional but academic. Aside from the pain of seeing their students hurt or belittled, educators are finding that bullying has especially insidious effects on student achievement.

New research is zeroing in on the academic effects of bullying. A study presented at the American Psychological Association convention last summer found that the extent of bullying (what the researchers called the “bullying climate”) in 284 Virginia high schools could predict schoolwide performance on state achievement tests in algebra, earth science and world history. Schools where students and teachers reported heavy amounts of bullying showed 3 to 5.5 percent lower scores on those tests, authors Anna Lacey and Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia reported.

Close on the heels of this finding, a study reported in the 2011 Journal of Early Adolescence found that among an ethnically diverse group of 2,300 6th-graders in 11 large urban public schools, “a high level of bullying by schoolmates is consistently related to academic disengagement and poor grades” across the middle school years. Peer victimization, wrote authors Jaana Juvonen, Yueyan Wang and Guadalupe Espinoza of the University of California at Los Angeles, can account for up to a letter grade and a half decrease (e.g., from an A to a B-/C+) in a subject across three years. While student grades often drop in middle school, the most bullied students consistently fared the worst.

Harm greatest for blacks and Latinos

Not long after that study came out, surprising new bullying research by a Virginia Tech professor and his colleague at Ohio State was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The new research showed that bullying is especially detrimental for black and Latino students and in particular for high-achieving students in those groups.

The authors, Professor Anthony Peguero and doctoral student Lisa Williams, followed a national sample of 9,590 students in 10th grade who reported being victimized by peers. Their average GPA dropped a small amount (.049 on a 4-point scale) by 12th grade. But for black students who started high school with a high 3.5 GPA and were bullied in 10th grade, grades declined six times as much. Their average GPA dropped by .3 to 3.2 by 12th grade. For Latino students, it was worse still, with high-scoring students dropping from 3.5 to 3.0 by the end of high school, even after the researchers accounted for family background, previous grades and other factors.

“Stereotypes about black and Latino youth suggest that they perform poorly in school,” Williams told the association. “High-achieving minorities who do not conform to the stereotype may be especially vulnerable to the effect bullying has on grades.” In fact, low-achieving Asian students, also running against stereotype, were also especially vulnerable to bullying.

Not only test scores …

Nor is the academic fallout limited to grade point average. Professor Peguero, in research published at the end of 2011, showed that black and Latino students who were victimized at school — bullied, hurt, harassed or threatened — were significantly more likely to drop out than their white counterparts who suffered the same abuse.

And intervention matters. If teachers and counselors can step in and create a respectful school climate, all students benefit, but again, minority students show particular gains. “These results suggest that black/African American and Latino American youth who are not exposed to violence at school have improved chances of completing high school,” Peguero wrote.

As part of its Be BRAVE Against Bullying campaign that was launched in October 2011, the UFT has set up a hotline (212-709-3222), a text message line (646-490-0233) and an online chat service at to counsel and support students who are victims of bullying at school.

UFT School Safety Director David Kazansky says the BRAVE campaign was the result of growing concern about all the effects of bullying at school. Bullying has an impact on attendance, he said. It keeps students from paying attention in class as they worry about what might happen to them in the hallways or on the way home. It can affect homework and class participation, Kazansky said. In short, it can exert a powerful drag on academic achievement.

“All our students should feel safe in school. When they don’t, it interferes with learning,” Kazansky said. “Educators have to stand up. The DOE has to stand up. The union takes students’ emotional and academic well-being very seriously.”

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