To develop safe and healthy school environments, schools must be able to respond to bullying and harassment appropriately and take deliberate action to prevent it. This includes incidences where the bullying is based on or related to a student’s identity, such as their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, religion or disability status.
Students across the country have increasingly reported alarming examples of identity-based bullying in schools – fueled in part by misinformation spread as a result of attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion in education.
For example, Black students in Lubbock, Texas have been called the “N-word” on a near-daily basis, frequently referred to as “porch monkeys,” forced to listen to other students making “monkey sounds” at them in class and told to “go pick cotton.” Students in one Lubbock middle school were subjected to the sounds of cracking whips as they walked through the halls. Another Black student, out of breath while working out during football practice, was taunted by other students jeering, “He can’t breathe like George Floyd.” (IDRA, 2022)
Such incidents are not limited to Texas. We see reports in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri and New York as well.
Bullying and harassment jeopardize students’ ability to learn and undermine a school’s climate, leaving many students, staff and communities feeling unsafe and disconnected (Craven, 2022). We must ensure that students, school communities and parents have the necessary tools to prevent and address identity-based bullying and can support all students impacted by it.
Identity-based Bullying, Hate Crimes and Harassment are on the Rise in Schools
According to NCES, 22% of students ages 12-18 were bullied in 2019 (2021). While this, standing alone, is concerning, the urgency of identifying, preventing and responding appropriately to bullying is further underscored when viewing this data from a disaggregated lens: students increasingly report being bullied on the bases of their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and religion (Alvis, et al., 2023; Brion-Meisels, et al., 2022).
The U.S. Department of Justice defines identity-based bullying as bullying arising from a single significant act or pattern of acts by one or more students that is based on or targets a student’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, gender, religion or disability status (Lahdon & Rapp, 2021). This includes bullying based on association with a person or group of people with these characteristics.
Unfortunately, incidents of identity-based bullying, harassment and hate crimes are on the rise. A 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that one in four students experienced bullying based on their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation. And one in four students reported seeing hate words or symbols (such as those referencing racial or homophobic slurs) written in their schools. Another report similarly found that 23% of students reported seeing hate-related graffiti at school (Wang, et al., 2020).
Students also experience bullying on the basis of their religion. While many faith-based groups report such bullying, a survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that Muslim (60%) and Jewish (58%) students are most likely to experience religious discrimination, in addition to 43% of white Evangelicals, 29% of Protestants and 26% of Catholics (Mogahed & Ikramullah, 2020).
LGBTQ+ students face identity-based bullying and harassment at alarming rates. According to a 2021 national survey, 82% of LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe in school because of at least one of their actual or perceived personal characteristics – including 51% of LGBTQ+ students who felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, 43% because of their gender expression, and 40% because of their gender (Kosciw, et al., 2021).
Also concerning, the number of hate crimes in schools has nearly doubled in recent years: in 2015-16, the number was approximately 3,166. It increased to 5,732 in 2017-18 (OJJDP, 2022). The most common bias motivation for hate crimes in schools was race or color.
Youth who reported being the victim of a hate crime overwhelmingly were victims of race/ethnicity- and ancestry-motivated hate crimes. Black children continue to be a primary target of these harmful actions, representing 69% of the single-bias instances reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program in 2020 (FBI, 2020).
Given the alarming rate at which these harmful incidents are increasingly occurring, school efforts to prevent and respond to bullying must account for the specific ways that bullying targets students on the basis of their identity and the magnified harm that students and a school community experience when the bullying behavior is motivated by bias or discrimination.
Identity-based Bullying Increases Risk for Mental Health Challenges and Exacerbates Existing Traumas
Effectively addressing bullying and harassment is critical to ensuring school safety and addressing youth mental health. Bullying is associated with negative health outcomes, such as depression and suicide, which can be exacerbated when students experience bullying on the basis of their identity (Alvis, et al., 2023; Kosciw, et al., 2021; Lutrick, et al., 2020; Garnett, et al., 2014).
Decades of research have shown that youth of color are at higher risk of being the victim of bullying, which may be due to experiences with discriminatory forms of bullying where an individual’s identity or identities are targeted through acts of verbal and/or physical assault (Alvis, et al., 2023; Galán, et al., 2021; Peskin, et al., 2006).
The data are likely underestimations, as a recent study found that Black and Latino youth reported more experiences of bullying behaviors (e.g., being threatened or put down by peers) but were less likely to endorse that they have been “bullied” (Lai & Kao, 2018) compared to white youth.
As recently noted by researchers, “The underreporting of bullying victimization among youth of color may be due to cultural stigma and fear of backlash from authority figures who tend to enact more severe punishment of and overpolice Black and Latino communities” (Alvis, et al., 2023 citing Rios, 2011).
While all forms of bullying are harmful and must be prevented and remediated, “identity-based bullying may have more deleterious effects on mental health relative to general bullying” because “identity-based bullying is often experienced as more threatening and severe, can be experienced as a violent assault on one’s sense of self, and is inherently demeaning and personal” (Alvis, et al., 2023).
Further, since youth of color are more likely to experience multiple types of traumatic events throughout their lives, they are at greater risk for psychological symptoms in response to identity-based bullying (Alvis, et al., 2023; Douglas, et al., 2021).
Because youth are particularly vulnerable to social and emotional harm during adolescence, addressing identity-based victimization must be addressed swiftly, effectively and with attention to the particular harm caused by discriminatory bullying (Alvis, et al., 2023; Russell, et al., 2012).
Leaders Must Act to Prohibit and Prevent Identity-based Bullying
School districts often do not have the tools they need to address harassment and bullying appropriately. With instances on the rise, schools’ inability to respond appropriately compromises student and school safety, jeopardizes students’ mental health, and could affect overall school climate and hostile environment.
Researchers continue to stress the importance of attending to identity and the impact of discrimination when addressing instances of bullying and implementing bullying prevention programs and initiatives (Alvis, et al, 2023; Russell, et al., 2012).
Teachers and staff must be empowered to prevent bullying and respond appropriately when it takes place. A study of outcomes for youth that experience identity-based bullying as opposed to more general bullying shows that supportive teachers help mitigate the negative outcomes for students that experience general bullying (Mulvey, et al., 2018).
Researchers also continue to emphasize the need to collect better, more comprehensive data about bullying to ensure more effective intervention and prevention measures, especially for students whose identity or identities may render them more susceptible to experiencing bullying (Mulvey, et al., 2018; GAO, 2012).
Finally, schools must have protocols in place to ensure that investigations of suspected or reported bullying are thorough, prompt and impartial (OCR, 2023; 2017; 2010; 1994). In fact, schools violate the law when they fail to implement meaningful prevention and intervention strategies to stop discriminatory behaviors. Schools should simultaneously assess potential mental health or academic issues and provide support for students experiencing them (Alvis, et al., 2023; Cornell & Limber, 2015).
IDRA is available to partner with schools to establish proactive strategies to build safe, welcoming and supportive environments for all students. In addition, IDRA’s free technical assistance toolkit, Interrupting Bullying and Harassment in Schools (https://idra.news/webInterrupt), provides resources to school leaders and policymakers, including research on effective and ineffective strategies.
Alvis L., Douglas, R.D., Oosterhoff, B., Gaylord-Harden, N.K., & Kaplow, J.B. (2023). Identity-based bullying and mental health among Black and Latino youth: The moderating role of emotional suppression. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Brion-Meisels, G., O’Neil, E., & Bishop, S. (2022). Literature Review – Bullying and Harassment in Schools. IDRA.
Cornell, D., & Limber, S. (May 2015). Law and Policy on the Concept of Bullying at School. American Psychological Association.
Douglas, R., Alvis, L., Rooney, E., Busby, D., & Kaplow, J. (2021) Racial, Ethnic, and Neighborhood Income Disparities in Childhood Trauma and Grief Reactions: Exploring Potential Indirect Effects Through Trauma And Bereavement Exposure. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 34(5), 929-942.
Galán, C.A., Stokes, L.R., Szoko, N., Abebe, K.Z., & Culyba, A.J. (2021). Exploration of Experiences and Perpetration of Identity-Based Bullying Among Adolescents by Race/Ethnicity and Other Marginalized Identities. JAMA Network Open, 4(7), e2116364.
GAO. (2021). K-12 Education: Students’ Experiences With Bullying, Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Victimization in Schools. Report to the Chairman, Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives. Government Accountability Office.
GAO. (2012). School Bullying: Extent of Legal Protections for Vulnerable Groups Needs to be More Fully Assessed. Government Accountability Office.
Garnett, B.R., Masyn, K.E., Austin, S.B., Miller, M., Williams, D.R., Viswanath, K. (August 2014). The Intersectionality Of Discrimination Attributes And Bullying Among Youth: An Applied Latent Class Analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
IDRA. (December 13, 2022). IDRA, Lubbock NAACP join Slaton and Lubbock Families in Demanding End to School-Based Racial Discrimination – Complaints Filed to Office for Civil Rights. IDRA.
Kosciw, J.G., Clark, C.M., & Menard, L. (2021). 2021 School Climate Report – The Experiences of LGBTQ+ Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. GLSEN.
Lahdon, T., & Rapp, S. (2021). Preventing Youth Hates Crimes and Identity Based Bullying. U.S. Department of Justice.
Lai, T., & Kao, G. (2018). Hit, Robbed, and Put Down (But Not Bullied): Underreporting of Bullying By Minority And Male Students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(3), 619-635.
Lutrick, K., Clark, R., Nuño, V.L., Bauman, S., & Carvajal, S. (2020). Latinx Bullying and Depression in Children and Youth: A Systematic Review. Systematic Reviews.
Mogahed, D., & Ikramullah, E. (2020). American Muslim Poll 2020: Amid Pandemic and Protest Featuring Five Years of Civic Engagement Trends. Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
Mulvey, K.L., Hoffman, A., Gönültaş, S., & Hope, E.C. (2018). Understanding Experiences With Bullying and Bias-Based Bullying: What Matters and for Whom? American Psychological Association.
Peskin, M.F., Tortolero, S.R., & Markham, C.M. (2006). Bullying and Victimization Among Black and Hispanic Adolescents. Adolescence, 41(163), 467-484.
Russell, S., Sinclair, K., Poteat. V., & Koenig, B. (February 8, 2012). Adolescent Health and Harassment Based on Discriminatory Bias. American Journal of Public Health, 102, No. 3.
Wang, K., Chen, Y., Zhang, J., & Oudekerk, B.A. (2020). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2019. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.
Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D., is IDRA’s chief legal analyst. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Makiah Lyons is IDRA’s education law intern. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2023 edition of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]