Summer 2021
Istockphoto.com Feodora Chiosea
Cover Story

Ending bias-based bullying

U of M researchers are educating schools about subtle behaviors that harm students

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.

Marla Eisenberg

“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. It’s like a low-level hum in the background, and it’s harder to see and identify the actors and targets,” 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. Much of her work has focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth. “There’s a large body of literature showing that kids who identify as LGBTQ get bullied a lot more than other kids who don’t identify this way,” she says.

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.

“Paying attention to current events made it clear how important it was to tackle these forms of bias head on,” she says.

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.”

The funding allowed them to bring together a multidisciplinary team, hire research staff including two doctoral students from nursing and public health, and pay the expenses associated with conducting interviews. “Their support really allowed us to dedicate time to understanding young people’s experiences,” Eisenberg says.

Who gets bullied?

Students of color are bullied or harassed about race, ethnicity, or country of origin 3.5 times more often than white students.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer/questioning students are bullied or harassed 8 times more often than straight students.

Transgender and gender diverse students are bullied or harassed about their gender 6.5 times more than cisgender students.

Overweight or obese students are bullied or harassed 2 times more often than students who had a healthy weight or were underweight.

Source: 2019 Minnesota Student Survey

The team reviewed data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, which is administered by the state Departments of Health and Education every three years, and the School Health Profiles Survey, 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. They also conducted four focus groups composed of kids who were working on racial and social justice and other issues. The team had completed all but one interview when the pandemic closed schools in March 2020.

Since then, they’ve been analyzing their data and looking at how they can help schools address this issue. “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.)

Marizen Ramirez

“A lot of the instances we heard about didn’t have those pieces from the first part of the definition. The schools didn’t identify it as bullying and didn’t have the follow-ups they used in cases of more overt bullying,” Eisenberg says.

Consequently, both students and parents interviewed were discouraged because many schools didn’t provide adequate support. Teachers and other staff also were frustrated because they didn’t know whether or how to respond if they saw or heard this more subtle form of bullying. “School policy and programs aren’t in place to support them on that,” she says.

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. It shows the student being targeted that someone sees and supports them, and it shows the other kids who overheard the comment that such behavior is not acceptable.
  • 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.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.