What is bullying and how often does it happen?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. We know that youth who are bullied and who bully others may suffer serious, lasting problems.
The pervasive problem of bullying in schools is not new knowledge. Perhaps you have heard various statistics on bullying in recent years, such as the fact that 1 in 4 to 1 in 3 students in U.S. schools are being bullied.
It seems not all students are bullied equally. Research has shown that students belonging to various minority groups are often more likely to be bullied. These groups include students with disabilities, LGBT students, religious minority students, and racial minority students. The 2015–16 Civil Rights Data Collection on School Climate and Safety, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, looked at data from over 96,000 schools and found that 23% percent of allegations of bullying involved harassment or bullying on the basis of race, 16% involved allegations on the basis of sexual orientation, 11% involved allegations on the basis of disability, and 8% involved allegations on the basis of religion.
Know the Facts
Below are some facts regarding the bullying of minority students.
Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities are bullied more often than students without disabilities. Research has shown that students in elementary through high school who receive special education services experience greater rates of bullying victimization than their peers without disabilities over time. Students with disabilities report being hit or threatened more than their peers without disabilities. 
Students receiving special education services are not the only type of students with disabilities who experience and engage in bullying at higher rates. Students with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorder, a sensory-related disability (such as speech or language impairment, deafness, orthopedic impairment, visual impairment, or traumatic brain injury), and other health impairments may all be at greater risk of being bullied or being involved in fighting at school. In one study, students with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders reported higher rates of victimization in inclusive school environments, whereas students with intellectual disabilities and emotional and behavioral disorders reported higher rates of victimization in restrictive school settings. Students identified with autism spectrum disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders, and other health impairments within restrictive environments reported the highest rates of fighting in school.
Students with disabilities may also bully others more.
Research has also shown that students with disabilities engage in higher levels of bully perpetration and fighting in school.[1, 2]
Bullying may be more harmful to students with disabilities.
Students in special education have reported more physical harm and psychological distress as a result of bully victimization when compared to their regular education peers.
Bullies aren’t always students.
One study found that, according to student reports, adult teachers and staff were more likely to verbally, relationally, and physically bully students in special education. Other research has shown that students in special education, students of color (except for Asian American youth), and male students were more likely to report that adults told them not to tattle about their bullying experiences more often than did youth not in special education, white or female students. In fact, students in special education were told not to tattle almost twice as often as youth not in special education. These data suggest that certain groups of students being bullied are being silenced by adults more than are majority youth.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are bullied more. We also know that school victimization happens at disproportionately high rates to LGBT students, which results in negative health disparities. LBGT students are more likely to experience bullying in-person and through use of technology (i.e., social media). Further, school victimization related to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender is strongly linked to young adult mental health and risk for STDs and HIV. What’s more, school victimization of these groups can lead to elevated levels of depression and suicidal ideation in males.
Transgender students are especially at risk.
Racial Minority Students
More likely to be bullied... As with other minority groups, racial minority students (particularly Black and Hispanic students) are more likely to be bullied in school. Racial minority students specifically report more instances of being threatened, hit, put down by peers, or having belongings forced from them, stolen or damaged.
...but less likely to perceive it as bullying. Though racial minority students are more likely to be bullied, they are less likely to report having been “bullied”. This may be because students of various minority groups, especially male students, may perceive reporting bullying as an indicator of “weakness”.
Adolescent bullying has been shown to be linked to depression, low self-esteem, and loneliness. Further, youth who are bullied are less likely to succeed in school, as victimization is also associated with poor school adjustment, in-school suspension, and school avoidance.
What can adults do?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that responding quickly and consistently to bullying behavior, teachers, parents, or other adults witnessing bullying behavior send the message that it is not acceptable. This can stop bullying behavior over time.
Intervention can take many forms. Here are some ideas from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to get you started:
- Talk about bullying! Let students know it’s unacceptable to bully and that if they are being bullied, people are there to help.
- Build a safe school environment! Work with others in the school and school system to bring bullying to the forefront of school intervention projects. Schedule talks about bullying. There are also initiatives designed to prevent and reduce bullying in schools, such as:
- Create a community-wide bullying prevention strategy! Work with others in your community to stop bullying in its tracks. Mental health and education professionals are great sources of support!
1. Rose, C. A., & Gage, N. A. (2017). Exploring the involvement of bullying among students with disabilities over time. Exceptional Children, 83, 298-314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402916667587
2. Rose, C. A., Stormont, M., Wang, Z., Simpson, C. G., Preast, J. L., & Green, A. L. (2015). Bullying and students with disabilities: examination of disability status and educational placement. School Psychology Review, 44(4), 425-444. https://doi.org/10.17105/spr-15-0080.1
3. Hartley, M. T., Bauman, S., Nixon, C. L., & Davis, S. (2015). Comparative Study of Bullying Victimization among Students in General and Special Education. Exceptional Children, 81(2), 176-193. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402914551741
4. Kurki-Kangas, L., Marttunen, M., Fröjd, S., & Kaltiala-Heino, R. (2019). Sexual Orientation and Bullying Involvement in Adolescence: The Role of Gender, Age, and Mental Health. Journal of School Violence, 18(3), 319-332. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2018.1488136
5. Russell, S. T., Ryan, C., Toomey, R. B., Diaz, R. M., & Sanchez, J. (2011). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adolescent School Victimization: Implications for Young Adult Health and Adjustment. Journal of School Health, 81(5), 223-230. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2011.00583.x
6. 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0748-7
7. Esbensen, F. A., & Carson, D. C. (2009). Consequences of being bullied results from a longitudinal assessment of bullying victimization in a multisite sample of American students. Youth & Society, 41(2), 209-233. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X09351067