It’s torture enough for youths to be bullied because they’re the new kids in school, or because of who they hang out with or what they wear. Being singled out for any reason can have long-lasting consequences, anti-bullying experts say. But when bullying is based on something basic to kids’ identity , such as the color of their skin or ethnicity, the damage is more profound, according to new research.

The study by North Carolina State University researchers Kelly Lynn Mulvey and Elan Hope didn’t measure the incidence of bias-based bullying, though experts who track bias point to an alarming uptick in the two years of the Trump administration.

Bias-based bullying is not going to suddenly go away, Mulvey and Hope told Patch. Everyone — from parents and families to teachers and the owner of the business on the corner — has to acknowledge the world isn’t color blind, no matter how much people may pretend that it is, according to the researchers.

“It’s important that we understand the underlying prejudices and bias that motivate bias-based bullying,” Hope said. “People may say they don’t see color or differences, but the reality is, we have a history that has forced those differences to the forefront. To assume that all bullying is equal is not true. … We don’t live in a neutral world.”


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Mulvey added: “When we take a one-size-fits-all approach to bullying, we respond as if it is the same. That’s not a reasonable approach, and we need to shift that paradigm to understand the importance of social justice, be active and empower people to speak against discrimination that is happening around them.

“It’s painful, but necessary,” Mulvey said, adding that changing how people view bias-based bullying is “a long road.”

For their study of bias-based bullying, the researchers reviewed the findings of a survey of 678 students ages 12-18 from the Department of Justice’s 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey. Nearly 490 students reported generalized bullying, and 117 reported experiencing one type of bias-based bullying, with gender, race and disability the most common categories targeted. Another 64 students students reported multiple bias-based bullying, with race and ethnicity being the most commonly targeted categories.

In generalized bullying, kids are targeted because of things like their academic interests, being the new kid at school or their fashion choices, said Mulvey, the corresponding author of the paper. But bias-based and multiple bias-based bullying occur when people are targeted because one or more aspects of their social identify — whether race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or a disability that may challenge them.

“We found that victims of multiple bias-based bullying had the worst outcomes in three areas: fear of being harmed, school avoidance, and negative effects on their physical, psychological and academic well-being,” Mulvey said. “Victims of one type of bias-based bullying fared second worst. Victims of generalized bullying still suffered adverse outcomes, but to a lesser extent than the other two groups.”

The researchers also found that the response people in a position to stop the bullying varied across the groups.

For example, social support from teachers, family, community members and peers did nothing to help victims of bias-based or multiple bias-based bullying — though it did help victims of generalized bullying. And school safety and security measures did little to make life better for kids who are victims of multiple bias-based bullying — but did lessen the harm for victims of single bias-based bullying and generalized bullying, the researchers said.

“Bias-based bullying and multiple bias-based bullying have different effects on students, and interventions are needed to focus on those underlying biases,” Hope said.

The Trump Effect

In a report looking at the effects of the 2016 presidential election on hate and bias crimes, the Southern Poverty Law Center said students and young people have been embroiled in the divisive rhetoric and used it to taunt and harass their classmates. The report cited incidents like one involving a comment directed at Latino students on a Colorado Springs school bus that Trump should not only build a wall, but it should be electriied to stop migrants from crossing it and “Mexicans should have to wear shock collars.”

In Redding, California, students distributed “deportation” letters to their classmates, according to the report. And in Greenville, North Carolina, a student worried to his mother that he might be deported. When she asked why, he said: “Because almost every kid in school was telling me that I was going to be deported to Mexico. And I told them no, I was born a U.S. citizen. But they said, ‘Yes you are, ’cause you are Mexican — just look at your skin color.’ “

More than 180 — or 23 percent — of the incidents documented in the SPLC report reflected anti-black sentiment, usually in the form of racial slurs and profanities conveyed through graffiti, face-to-face harassment and text messages, sometimes referencing Trump. Lynching comments and “white power” slogans were also commonly reported.

Mulvey and Hope’s data were collected before Trump made his run for the White House, and two years into his unorthodox presidency, the latest SPLC hate crime report offers no reason for optimism in an increasingly politically and socially fractured America.

Hate crimes remain on the uptick. 2017 saw a 17 percent increase from the 2016 record, the SPLC said in an annual report. Not only that, the frequency of hate crimes is at its third-highest level since the FBI began collecting data on the category in 1992.

The growing incidence of bias-based crimes underpins the need for more national leadership to stem them, the civil rights organization said. In previous administrations, the political gulf was just as wide, but “there was a line that wouldn’t be crossed with regards to over-the-top bigotry” that doesn’t seem to exist in the Trump administration, Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the SPLC.

In the absence of that, local communities can’t just wring their hands, Mulvey and Hope say, because kids already know the score and are adjusting their behavior to level the field.

“High school students are very aware of the different ways discrimination plays out,” Hope said. “They see when teachers are overly harsh in their punishment of black versus white students, and acknowledge it by sitting in the front row of classrooms. It’s a strategy of wanting to succeed in environments that aren’t set up for their success.”

The researchers said their findings are a call for more funding to study the long-term effects of bias-based bullying and how it can affect kids’ success both at school and later on when they enter the workforce.

“I don’t think there’s lack of understanding in research community on the need,” Hope said. “It’s more of a need for resources.”


About This Series

Throughout 2018, Patch has been looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

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