Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stop Panicking About Bullies?

Nick Gillespie, at the Wall Street Journal, says we are worrying too much about bullying. There is no bullying crisis, he says. Parents are too overprotective, he says. Things are getting better, he says.

Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids, writes about the article on her blog:
Like Gillespie, I am appalled by true bullying and in favor of a society that does not tolerate it.
All right, what is "true bullying" as opposed to some other kind of (false?) bullying? She explains a bit further: lump together unbearable harassment with minor teasing is just a mistake.
Right, so "unbearable harassment" is appalling and "minor teasing" is nothing to worry about. Got it. But who gets to decide the difference? If not the victim himself, then who? If a child finds his environment unbearable, who are we to say otherwise? And what about things in-between the two extremes as Skenazy describes? What about harassment that's sort of bearable? Is that worth troubling our helicopter-selves with? What about relentless "minor" teasing?

Anyway, Skenazy says she is "in a rage" by any talk of a growing bullying crisis. She picks out a very convenient quote from Gillespie's article, which says:
Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.
Wow, everyone! Four percent?! Really? Bullying seems like it's pretty much over. Oh wait, keep reading just a tiny bit further in the WSJ article and you don't have to wonder why Skenazy chose that quote, and not the one immediately after it:
When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. [NCES] reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available).
The first quote says everything is fine. In fact, things are so much better, that the problems are almost completely gone (4%! Down from 12%!). The second quote says the numbers are less clear, that around 30% of students reported being bullied, and that the number hasn't changed much in the recent past. While it means bullying may not be increasing, it certainly does not prove that things are getting much better, as Skenazy would like us to believe.

From the National Center for Education Statistics

So where did that 4% number come from? I was curious, so I went right to the source. The survey questions and the key findings of the study done by the National Center for Education Statistics are published on their website. It turns out, there are many sections in the survey. The section called "Fighting, Bullying and Hate Behaviors" includes the questions that lead to the conclusions those around-30% numbers. There is a completely different section, apart from the bullying section, entitled "Fear," under which the questions about fear of  "attack or harm" were asked. These are the questions that give us the 4% number. These questions are, by design of the study, not related to bullying. It seems those questions are referring to other kinds of violent acts.

Why is the 4% number being used in articles and blog posts on bullying? Because it's convenient for those who want to downplay the bullying problem. The trouble is, it is irresponsible and misleading. When almost one-third of children are being bullied in school, there IS a crisis.