A Glimmer of Hope in a Bad-News Survey About Bullying

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The bad news: half of all high school students, regardless of gender or type of school, say they have bullied someone in the past year, and 47% of students say they have been bullied in a way that seriously upset them. The good news: overall rates of bullying are down from 2008, according to the Josephson Institute’s comprehensive Ethics of American Youth survey.

Peer abuse by teens has been on the fore of the national conversation, following the troubling spate of suicides — 10 teens in September alone — that have been attributed to bullying. In August, President Obama asked for a 12% increase in antibullying program funds, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced new guidance on Oct. 26 that suggests some types of bullying — such as those based on sexual orientation or religion — may be a civil rights violation. (More on Time.com: Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness).

“It’s not only the prevalence of bullying behavior and victimization that’s troublesome,” said Michael Josephson, the founder and president of the Josephson Institute, in a statement. “The Internet has intensified the injury. What’s posted on the Internet is permanent, and it spreads like a virus — there is no refuge. The difference between the impact of bullying today versus 20 years ago is the difference between getting into a fist fight and using a gun.”

Indeed, as my colleague John Cloud wrote in a TIME Magazine article about several of the recent teen deaths:

The trouble is, the technology of bullying has advanced much faster than efforts to stop it ever could. If you have a cell phone, you can post to your entire school that a girl is a slut or a boy is a fag — and you can attach an unflattering photo or video of them to try to prove it. At least bullies of previous decades had to hold you down before they could spit in your face.

The new study did not look specifically at Internet bullying, but it did survey 43,321 teens, ranging from 15 to 18 years old and representing 78 public schools and 22 private schools, about all kinds of in-school abuse. (More on Time.com: ‘It Gets Better': Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids).

Overall, 33% of all teens said that physical violence was a problem at their schools, and 26% said they felt unsafe. The threat of violence was most severe at public schools: 38% of public high school students felt that violence was a problem, compared with 8% of students at religious schools and 6% of students at non-religious private schools. Similarly, 27% of public school students felt unsafe at school, compared with 7% of parochial school students and 6% of teens in private school. Whether it’s a cause or a result of feeling unsafe is unclear, but 10% of public school students also said they had taken a weapon to school in the previous year, twice the rate of religious and private school students.

When asked about verbal and emotional abuse, all students reported similar rates of bullying: 48% of students at religious schools had been bullied, teased or taunted, compared with 45% of public school students and 47% of kids at private school. (More on Time.com: Profiling Student Cheaters: Are They Psychopaths?).

Fully 58% of private school kids admitted to teasing, taunting or bullying a classmate in the previous 12 months.

Many of the recent and highly publicized teenage victims of suicide were known to have been teased by classmates because they were different — primarily because they were gay or perceived to be gay. And the survey found that rates of bullying fueled by prejudice were surprisingly high: 21% of students said they had bullied someone specifically because they believed that person was from a “different group.” Across the board, 42% of students had used a racial slur at least once in the past year, and 23% of students identified themselves as prejudiced against groups to which they didn’t belong. (More on Time.com: When Bullying Turns Deadly: Can It Be Stopped?).

In the face of such disheartening feedback, it’s helpful to note that continued national attention on bullying may be doing some good: in the Institute’s 2008 survey, which used the same design as the new one, 73% of students said they felt unsafe at school — today, that number has dropped to 24%. It’s not good enough, but it’s a start.

More on Time.com:

Don’t Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure

Why We Strive for Money Over Time — and Why It’s a Mistake

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