Is Trump mak­ing mid­dle school bul­ly­ing worse?

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY MICHELLE GOLD­BERG

Im­me­di­ately after Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, alarm­ing sto­ries ap­peared of school bul­lies who seemed to be in­spired by the new pres­i­dent. In York County, Penn­syl­va­nia, two stu­dents marched through their high school hall­ways hold­ing a Trump sign while a third shouted, “White power!” A teacher in Kansas re­ported stu­dents taunt­ing class­mates with the re­frain, “Trump won, you’re go­ing back to Mex­ico.” At sev­eral schools, white school sports fans chanted, “Trump! Trump!” at op­pos­ing teams with more play­ers of color.

As these sto­ries pro­lif­er­ated, no one knew for sure whether they were just scat­tered anec­dotes or signs of more se­ri­ous so­cial change. Then re­searchers in­volved with a statewide sur­vey of bul­ly­ing in Vir­ginia schools re­al­ized they had a way to find out.

Ev­ery other year, tens of thou­sands of the state’s pub­lic school stu­dents com­plete on­line sur­veys about their schools’ so­cial en­vi­ron­ment. Be­cause sur­veys of mid­dle school­ers are done in odd years, re­searchers had data for sev­enth and eighth graders from both 2015, right be­fore the elec­tion, and 2017, right after it. Over 400 mid­dle schools par­tic­i­pated. “It was an op­por­tu­nity to see whether in fact there was this in­crease in bul­ly­ing,” said Dewey Cor­nell, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia who led the team that de­vel­oped the sur­vey.

It turned out that there was in­deed an in­crease, but not ev­ery­where. Cor­nell and a mem­ber of his team, Fran­cis L. Huang, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri, Columbia, who spe­cial­izes in quan­ti­ta­tive re­search meth­ods, found that in 2015, there’d been lit­tle dif­fer­ence in bul­ly­ing rates be­tween ar­eas of the state that went for Hillary Clin­ton in 2016 and those that would sup­port Trump. But in 2017, stu­dents re­ported 18 per­cent more bul­ly­ing in Trump lo­cales than the Clin­ton ones. In the Clin­ton re­gions, bul­ly­ing ac­tu­ally de­clined slightly from 2015.

The Trump ar­eas saw par­tic­u­lar in­creases in teas­ing about race and, to a lesser de­gree, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. The greater the mar­gin of Trump sup­port in the com­mu­nity, “the higher the preva­lence rates” of bul­ly­ing, Huang told me, even after ad­just­ing for fac­tors like so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus and parental ed­u­ca­tion.

Cor­nell and Huang’s peer­re­viewed paper, “School Teas­ing and Bul­ly­ing After the Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion,” was pub­lished Wed­nes­day. They don’t claim to have dis­cov­ered that a re­gion’s back­ing for Trump causes an uptick in re­ports of bul­ly­ing, only that the two are cor­re­lated.

“The adults that voted for Trump are much more likely to em­u­late Trump and be sup­port­ive of at­ti­tudes that we saw turned into bul­ly­ing and teas­ing in mid­dle school,” Cor­nell said. “I sus­pect it’s an in­di­rect ef­fect of the so­cial en­vi­ron­ment that kids are in. It may be their par­ents, it may be other adults, it may be the adults in schools.”

In the 1990s, when Bill Clin­ton’s af­fair with Mon­ica Lewin­sky forced dis­cus­sions of oral sex onto the evening news, many con­ser­va­tives lamented the ef­fect on im­pres­sion­able youth.

Such con­cerns have since fallen from fash­ion on the right. The very idea of good char­ac­ter has be­come a par­ti­san at­tribute.

Kids get this, though it shows up in dif­fer­ent ways. Some of our chil­dren are grow­ing up know­ing that the pres­i­dent of the United States is also one of the coun­try’s very worst peo­ple, which surely af­fects their con­cep­tion of gov­ern­ment. Some are grow­ing up scared of him.

But some kids, it seems, could be grow­ing up with per­mis­sion to act like the pres­i­dent.

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