Image credit: Feodora Chiosea

Ending bias-based bullying
U of M researchers are educating schools about subtle behaviors.

Of all the students who’ve made an impression on former school nurse Camille Brown, one high school girl stands out.

Brown was interviewing her as part of a University of Minnesota research project about bias-based bullying. She was taken aback when the girl, who identified as queer, suddenly opened up about her friend’s suicide and the impact it had on her.

The girl explained how her friend, who also was queer, was having trouble at home and was called hurtful names about her sexual orientation at school. One night, the friend took her life. “She was heartbroken and wondered if there was something she could have done,” Brown says.

In her interviews with Minnesota middle- and high-school students, Brown heard a number of stories about students who felt the sting of bias-based bullying—repeated targeting based on sexual orientation, weight, religion, race, ethnicity, or other aspects of students' identity.

“Bias-based bullying doesn’t look like what we used to think of as bullying, where one kid pushes another into a locker or steals that kid’s lunch money every day. It’s much more subtle and pervasive,” says Marla Eisenberg, a University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics faculty member who led the study.

Eisenberg has spent most of her career examining social influences on high-risk health behaviors and experiences in kids. One of her colleagues suggested looking into bias-based bullying, as research has shown that kids who experience this form of hostility are more likely to have physical, emotional, and behavioral health problems than those who do not. Such experiences also were found to affect their performance in school.

Not neatly defined

With support from Minnesota Masonic Charities, Eisenberg partnered with Marizen Ramirez, an epidemiologist and member of the School of Public Health’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences, whose work has focused on injury and violence prevention, to study bias-based bullying in Minnesota middle and high schools.

“The effects of violence historically received very little research funding compared with other health conditions. We constantly struggle to make the case that it’s a public health problem,” Ramirez says. “So I appreciate the Masons’ recognition and desire to support this kind of work.”

Their team reviewed data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey and a federal survey of middle and high school principals and health education teachers. They found 41 percent of Minnesota high school students said they had been harassed about their identity or personal characteristics.

Investigators also interviewed 13 teens from around the state who had been affected by bias-based bullying, their parents, and staff from seven schools. 

“We learned that bias-based bullying is very common, and we learned more about what it looks like,” Eisenberg says. “We also learned that it’s rarely reported and that it contributes to a toxic environment for a lot of these kids.”

Creating safer schools

In Minnesota, schools are required by law to address bullying. State statute uses a two-part definition, either of which qualifies as bullying. First, it has to be intentionally hurtful, has to be repeated, and has to be between students where there’s an imbalance of power; for example, one student is physically stronger or more popular than the other. Second, it has to impede the student’s ability to learn or participate in school activities. (Schools typically rely on the first part of the definition when addressing the issue.) 

Based on what they learned, the team provided resources and help for identifying and handling these situations.

Some of their recommendations include:

  • Train teachers and staff to recognize bias-based bullying and help them stand up for students when they see it happening. For example, if a teacher hears a racial slur and says, “We don’t talk like that here,” it disrupts the moment. 
  • Teach staff to recognize when a student is distressed, which can be an opening for a conversation about bias-based bullying.
  • Make sure students know how to report such behaviors, whether they or someone else is being targeted.
  • Encourage relationship building between students and teachers, school nurses, and counselors so students have a trusted adult they can go to for help.

“If you create a culture of support in school that accepts differences and teaches respect, then you may be able to intervene not just on bias-based bullying but on multiple forms of violence such as suicide ideation or teen dating violence,” Ramirez says. “If we can create such a culture, we can build healthy young adults who are going to be much more compassionate.”

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