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Please do something about bullying, Mr. Trump

Guest contributor | November 20, 2016

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(Courtesy YouthTruth)

By Hannah Bartlebaugh

In the days following the election of Donald Trump, there have been incidents across the country of increased harassment and bullying that have made students feel unsafe and unwanted in their public schools. As we move into the era of a Trump presidency, it’s more important now than ever to address bullying.

President-elect Trump and his staff need to respond and tell the country that all students should feel safe and respected. If Trump truly believes that it is time to “come together as one united people,” it is imperative that he take the lead with a comprehensive initiative to acknowledge and address the wave of bullying and intolerance that ripples across the country.

In the final weeks of her campaign, Hillary Clinton articulated an imperfect, but solid, framework to address bullying through her “Better Than Bullying” initiative. Trump should take this plan and improve on it to temper the harsh rhetoric that has seeped into our collective culture over the past election cycle. What the Better Than Bullying initiative lacked, and what should be a focus in future plans, is something fundamentally important: the voices of students.

1-in-4_bullyingToo many school leaders and education officials are flying blind when it comes to bullying. Because bullied students are often scared to come forward, bullying is undetected or under-reported. Students come to school in fear, or skip school out of fear, and teachers and school leaders don’t even know why. While there has been a rush of stories across media outlets about students’ response to Trump’s election, it’s important to think about methods to understand the experiences of all students, not just those who feel comfortable coming forward. It’s only through candid, school-wide and confidential reporting mechanisms — ones that students trust to keep their identities hidden — that we can get the real data to school leaders. And it’s only with that data that educators can understand the nature of the issue and take the necessary action to address it.

YouthTruth, the nonprofit where I work, partners with schools across the country to give students a voice, and we recently released findings about kids’ experiences of bullying. Our data found that one in four students in K-12 education is bullied, and that most bullying still happens in person, rather than online. School leaders need reliable data to target resources and gauge progress, and that has to come from student surveys that are truly confidential. That’s the only way to get the real scoop on what’s going on in schools.

Clinton’s Better Than Bullying plan laid the groundwork for giving states flexibility to focus resources according to need, and that’s a positive start that should be incorporated into future policy initiatives. Understanding student experiences on a local level is key to the success of any large-scale anti-bullying initiatives. Students across different demographics and campuses can have widely varying experiences — our data found that school-based bullying rates can range from a low of 12 percent to a high of nearly 60 percent — which will require good data and flexibility to meet local needs.

We also found that students’ appearance is most likely to be cited as the reason for being bullied. Forty-four percent of students reported this, followed by 16 percent citing race or skin color, and 14 percent citing that others thought they were gay. Education officials need good data from the students themselves about where bullying is most pervasive and why it’s happening. In the words of one middle school student, “I would love it if this school could just stop the bullying. The teachers don’t see it, but us kids do.”

Without being informed by the lived reality of those experiencing bullying in schools, how can policymakers and school leaders most effectively create and allocate resources?

Now, more than ever, we must ensure that students feel safe and respected in their schools and communities. To do so, we need a deliberate effort toward anti-bullying initiatives from the top that incorporate the voices and perspectives of those who are most affected — the students themselves. ­­

Hannah Bartlebaugh is the marketing and external relations coordinator for YouthTruth Student Survey. Follow her on Twitter @Youth_Truth.

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