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Are Schoolyard Bullies As Big A Problem As Some People Think?

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 9:37 AM

The makers of the documentary "Bully" hope to change the way we think about and react to bullying.

Ohio is on high alert against bullying.

State lawmakers recently approved new anti-bullying laws. Schools are launching intensive lessons about why bullying is bad. And after a "vicious bullying attack" on an openly gay Ohio student was caught on video, school districts faced national pressure to better protect gay teens.

As illustration of the rising anti-bullying tide, we share with you the fact that, according to a press release we got yesterday promoting a Cleveland anti-bullying rally, "Bullying is the #1 concern for the youth of our country."

But now, with the movie "Bully" opening in theaters in Ohio and nationwide Friday, editor in chief Nick Gillespie says in a Wall Street Journal column that people should stop making such a big deal about bullying:

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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.

When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of "Bully" say that "over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year," and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial 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). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).

The NCES says bullying includes "being made fun of; being the subject of rumors; being threatened with harm; being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; being pressured into doing things [one] did not want to do; excluded from activities on purpose; and having property destroyed on purpose."

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott says America has seen a shift in how many think about bullying, but suggests it's a move in the right direction:

[The movie Bully] documents a shift in consciousness of the kind that occurs when isolated, oppressed individuals discover that they are not alone and begin the difficult work of altering intolerable conditions widely regarded as normal...

When WKSU's Vivian Goodman reported on bullying just two years ago, she found that bullying in Northeast Ohio is actually worse than the national average:

The age-old parental advice to just ignore bullies has little credence when children are killing themselves to escape continual abuse. Statistics show bullying has been tapering off nationwide. But the problem in Northeast Ohio remains worse than the national average, and in one local school district, the families of two students say their children were bullied to death.

Do you think the focus on bullying is overblown? Or has the focus on preventing bullying been long-needed in Ohio schools?

(Thanks to our friends at StateImpact Florida for the pointer to the WSJ column.)

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