After the 2016 presidential election, teachers across the country reported they were seeing increased name-calling and bullying in their classrooms. Now, research shows that those stories — at least in one state — are confirmed by student surveys.
Francis Huang of the University of Missouri and Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia used data from a school climate survey taken by over 150,000 students across Virginia. They looked at student responses to questions about bullying and teasing from 2015 and 2017. Their findings were published Wednesday in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
In the 2017 responses, Huang and Cornell found higher rates of bullying and certain types of teasing in areas where voters favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Seventh- and eighth-graders in areas that favored Trump reported bullying rates in spring 2017 that were 18 percent higher than students living in areas that went for Clinton. They were also 9 percent more likely to report that kids at their schools were teased because of their race or ethnicity.
In the 2015 data, there were "no meaningful differences" in those findings across communities, the researchers wrote.
These findings come at a time when school bullying rates nationally have remained relatively flat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that about 1 in 5 students were bullied at school in 2017.
Huang, an associate professor of education, says the overall stable number fits with the state-level findings from his research with Cornell: While bullying rates in areas of Virginia that voted Republican went up in 2017, rates went down in places that favored Clinton.
"If, in one area, bullying rates go up, and, in another area, your bullying rates go down, what do you get?" he asks. "You get an average of no change."
The researchers took pains to note that their research does not conclude that President Trump's election caused an increase in bullying. Instead, they found a correlation between voter preference and bullying, and they observed teasing across one state.
Their findings could lend credence to the anecdotal reports from teachers around the country after the election, says Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who researches bullying and school safety in middle and high schools.
"Anybody that's in the schools is picking up on this," she says. "You don't have to be a psychologist or a sociologist to understand that if these conversations are happening on the TV and at the dinner table that these kids will take this perspective and they're going to play out in the schools."
A nationally representative survey conducted in the fall of 2017 showed that just 14 percent of 9- to 11-year-olds believe that the country's leaders model how to treat others with kindness — and 70 percent said it would help kids their age to be kinder if adults in charge of the country set a better example.
"Parents should be mindful of how their reactions to the presidential election, or the reactions of others, could influence their children," Cornell, a psychologist and professor of education at UVA, said in a statement. "And politicians should be mindful of the potential impact of their campaign rhetoric and behavior on their supporters and indirectly on youth."
Regardless of where and how it happens, adds Francis Huang, "bullying is something that can still be addressed and brought down in schools."