Bullying more common in middle schools than many recognize

July 07, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Forget the classic image of the lone schoolyard bully, says University of Illinois professor Dorothy Espelage. It seems most kids do at least a little bullying of their peers, if the results from a survey at a large Midwestern middle school are any indication.

The survey showed 80 percent of 558 students in the sample, drawn from a student body of 1,361, had engaged in bullying behaviors during the previous 30 days.

"The findings indicated that the bullying behaviors measured (that is, teasing, name-calling, threatening and social ridiculing of peers) were common, with most students reporting some involvement in bullying others," according to an article on the survey being published next month in the Journal of Early Adolescence.

In contrast to most previous research on the topic, Espelage and her research colleagues -- Kris Bosworth, a professor at the University of Arizona, and Thomas Simon, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- looked at bullying as a continuum of behaviors, rather than singling out kids as bullies, non-bullies or victims. Instead, the researchers asked students if they had engaged in certain behaviors over the past month, without telling them they defined those behaviors as bullying. The behaviors ranged from name-calling and teasing to threats and physical aggression.

Although the highest percentage of students who said they engaged in bullying behavior reported low to moderate levels of that behavior, the results supported the researchers' perspective that adolescents don't fall into categories of either bullies or non-bullies.

In fact, in interview-based research conducted at three other Midwestern middle schools, Espelage noted, "what's interesting is that kids who bully a lot say they've been victimized too." And recent studies by others have found nearly 80 to 90 percent of adolescents report some form of victimization from a bully at school, she said.

Rather than just dealing with a few problem kids, or obvious physical aggression, Espelage said, "the research in general would support the idea that in order to impact bullying, you have to impact the school climate." But school personnel don't see most of the bullying, since it happens out of their sight, said Espelage, a professor of educational psychology. In all four schools studied, the staff seriously underestimated the problem, based on what students told researchers.

Teachers and parents might also fail to recognize and address the problem because they see a certain degree of bullying, and learning how to deal with it, as just part of growing up, she said.
Espelage will present a paper on her research at the American Psychological Association annual convention Aug. 20-24 in Boston. Additional research will be published early next year. The survey research was supported through an agreement between Indiana University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The interview research was supported by the U. of I. Campus Research Board.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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