Bias-Based Bullying Pilot Study


Students in class --Image by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly's Gender Spectrum Collection
Image by Zackary Drucker for Broadly's Gender Spectrum Collection

Background: Bias-based bullying, or bullying based on personal characteristics such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or body weight, has been identified as a key contributor to health disparities among youth of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth; and youth who are overweight or obese. Students who are the targets of bias-based bullying may not only experience emotional distress and physical health consequences associated with this type of bullying victimization, but they may also be less academically engaged and more likely to skip classes or full school days. As a result, bias-based bullying during adolescence can have life-long impacts on children’s healthy development, including physical health, social and emotional well-being, academic achievement, and employment.

Although well-placed to intervene, educate, and prevent bias-based bullying, schools are struggling with a lack of clear guidelines and evidence-based practices that effectively reduce bias-based bullying. Given schools’ limited time and monetary resources, specific school practices that are responsive to the needs of both schools and youth most affected by bias-based bullying are critically needed. 

This study: This study had two parts – a qualitative and a quantitative component.

Qualitative research: The aim of this component was to describe bias-based bullying experiences from the perspectives of youth, parents, and school personnel in Minnesota, focusing on youth of color, LGBTQ youth, and those who are overweight. We conducted 13 dyadic interviews (n=26 youth and parents), four focus groups (n=24 youth), and 7 school team interviews (n=19 staff members). Key findings include the following:

  • While there were some experiences of “traditional” bullying, the majority of experiences included being the target of or overhearing slurs, name calling, and microaggressions that happened frequently but were not perpetrated by the same actor;
  • Experiences of microaggressions (direct and overheard) were very common among students;
  • Schools have policies and protocols in place to deal with bullying, but the experiences described by our participants typically did not meet the school’s formal definition of bullying (i.e. intention to harm, repeated action, power imbalance between actor and target), so often went unaddressed;
  • Bias-based bullying adversely affected school climate and the health and wellbeing of vulnerable youth.

Quantitative research: The aim of this component was to explore whether schools that offer diversity education activities have lower rates of bias-based bullying among students compared to schools that do not offer these activities. Data came from two sources: the 2018 CDC School Profiles Survey (N=216 schools) and the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey (N=64,510 students). Multilevel logistic regression tested associations between diversity education activities (diversity clubs, lessons, or special events) and eight types of bias-based bullying among students (e.g. based on race/ethnicity/national origin, sexual orientation), with attention to differences across relevant demographic characteristics. Key findings include:

  • Prevalence of bias-based bullying ranged from 7% reporting bullying due to religion, gender, and sexual orientation, to approximately 25% (due to weight and appearance);
  • Experiences of bias-based bullying were significantly more common among youth with the relevant characteristic (e.g. students of color were more likely than white students to be bullied about race/ethnicity/national origin);
  • Diversity education activities were common, with almost half offering all three types;
  • Schools that offer a wider variety of diversity education opportunities had significantly lower odds of bullying about race, ethnicity, or national origin among boys of color, about sexual orientation for gay, bisexual and questioning boys, and about disability for boys with a physical health problem (similar findings were not found for girls).

Funding for this research came from the University of Minnesota, Department of Pediatrics New Team Science Grant, supported by the Minnesota Masonic Charities Fund.

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Legacy Magazine Summer 2021 - Cover Story, "Ending bias-based bullying"

Contact Us

Marla Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H.
email: [email protected]