Does Labeling Bias as "Bullying" Hide the Real Problem?

Yesterday, we were struck by Tony Dokoupil's piece on Alex Merritt, a young man bullied by his teachers. As Dokoupil movingly reported, the taunts were cruel, and the remarks were almost entirely based on the teachers' allegations that Merritt was a homosexual.

Of course, the fact the bullying was spearheaded by teachers – then spread to the student-body – makes the situation seem all the more unforgivable.

But it reminded us of the work of University of Arizona professor, Stephen T. Russell. Russell went to public and private schools in California, surveying 235,000 kids in 7th, 9th, and 11th grades. Russell asked each student if he had been bullied within the past 12 months, and if they answer was yes, to describe the incident.

37.4% of the kids said that they had been bullied.

Then Russell broke that data down by category.

14% of the kids had been bullied because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. 9.1% of the kids said they'd been bullied because of their religious beliefs, while 10.3% said the bullying was gender-based. Like Alex Merritt, 7.5% said that the torments had been about their sexual-orientation – that includes kids who were actually homosexual, and those just perceived to be gay. Another 4.9% said that they were bullied because of they had a physical or mental disability.

By the end of his data analysis, Russell had concluded that 75% of all bullying came from some type of bias – racial, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

At the same time, when he first mentioned that he was researching the bias-factor in bullying with researchers and educators, the reaction was usually an incredulous, "That still goes on?" His colleagues were universally stunned to learn that bias-based bullying was actually the predominant factor in such incidents.

Meanwhile, University of Illinois' Dorothy Espelage has been analyzing the curriculum of the anti-bullying programs most commonly used in schools. She found that hardly any of the programs even addressed bullying relating to sexual orientation.

If the majority of bullying is bias-related, and yet we don't even acknowledge this in anti-bullying programs, what does this mean? In the chapter of our book, excerpted in Newsweek, we presented evidence that demonstrated how many of us have assumed kids are race/color-blind, and thus we don't need to talk about race with them – however, that leaves kids to their own devices on how they respond to racial and ethnic differences. Perhaps the same pattern is going on in other forms of bias. We think that we as a society are past making fun of people with disabilities, people of different religion or gender, etc. – and thus we don't actively talk about these issues with our children. And that has inadvertently left the door open for kids to use these differences as the basis of torment.

Now, there's a current concern about bullying, and efforts to quell it are springing up everywhere. So perhaps it's good to consider these incidents as bullying.

But we wonder if the label of "bullying" actually makes this bias-related torment seem less hurtful than it really is. Because the term "bullying" conjures up school kids taking each other's lunch money. It doesn't conjure up images of discrimination, or sexual and racial harassment. Which is how we describe these incidents if they had happened anywhere outside of a school's grounds.

Being the victim of bullies has long been shown to lead to depressive symptoms, binge drinking, and skipping school. Russell's data revealed that these negative effects are much worse when a child is bulllied-for-bias.

As one kid told Russell: "Adults, I feel, don't understand how bad it is. They don't understand that kids have rocks thrown at them, or food thrown at them, or comments. Even if they are just comments, they can shatter the soul. I mean, they can really hurt someone's self-esteem, and just not make them want to live anymore."