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Study gives insight into student bullies and their victims

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Daughter was bullied
Judy Kuczynski of Belle Plaine holds up a photo of her daughter Tina, who was severely bullied while a student in the Burnsville School District. Tina later died in a car accident. Judy is now president of Bully Police, a grassroots bullying prevention organization.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

If you're a parent of a Minnesota student, there's more than a 50 percent chance your child has been bullied — or bullied another student — at least once.

Thousands of students have been involved with bullying much more than just once, according to a new analysis by the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education.

The study, which examined data from last year's Minnesota Student Survey of more than 130,000 students, found that 13 percent reported being bullied regularly, once a week or more. If that held for the state's entire student population, it would mean more than 100,000 students in Minnesota are bullied on a regular basis.

The study found that 9 percent of students reported they had bullied others on a regular basis and another 3 percent reported being both a bully and a victim at least once a week. 

CASSELLIUS: MORE TO BE DONE

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the report is more proof that school officials must do more to address bullying.

"We want welcoming, engaging, supportive environments in all our schools," she said. "But we have to help children and teach them the skills so that when conflict arises, they're able to deal with it in a healthy way."

The student survey asked a wide range of questions, such as whether students wear seat belts, have smoked or had sex. It also asked about their grades and home life, and whether they have been bullied.

From there, researchers compared bullying responses with answers from other questions.

White House bullying conference
First Lady Michelle Obama talks with attendees of the Conference on Bullying Prevention at the White House, March 10, 2011. At left, in flowered shirt, is Maggie Miland of Northfield, Minn. She attended the conference with her sister Kelly, a bullying victim, and her mother Lynn, who is a parent advocate at the PACER center.
Photo by Samantha Appleton/White House

"The kids who said they've never really been bullied, their life is pretty stable and looks pretty healthy," said Nancy Riestenberg, a specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education. "But the kids who have experiences with bullying — whether victims or offenders — that's not true for them."

Students regularly involved with bullying — either as a bully, a victim, or both — also are less likely to earn As and Bs. They skip school more often, and they report higher rates of alcohol, tobacco and drug use.

Such students also are more likely to report having experienced or witnessed family violence, including sexual abuse.

A COMPLICATED LINK TO SUICIDE

According to the report, more than a quarter of Minnesota students who have been a frequent bully or victim also have thought of suicide in the past year.

However, researchers note that the link between bullying and suicide is complex. There is rarely a single reason why young people take their own lives, said Maureen Underwood, a social worker who works with the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

Underwood said bullying might make youth who are already vulnerable more susceptible to thoughts of suicide.

"Lots of kids are depressed and lots of kids are bullied, and all of these kids are not suicidal," she said. "So there's something that separates the kids who choose suicide from all the rest of the kids who come up with healthier ways to cop with being victimized."

A LOOK AT ALL SIDES OF ISSUE

The state study provides important information on all students who are involved with bullying, not just those who are preyed upon, said Jennifer O'Brien, adolescent health coordinator at the state Department of Health.

"I think often when we look at this issue, we think just about the victim's side of it," O'Brien said. "We think 'what can we do to protect this young person who's the victim of bullying?' And while that's so important, I think this report really charges us as professionals to be looking at the experiences and needs of those that are bullying."

O'Brien cited a recent Massachusetts survey that found similar results.

The Minnesota report also includes recommendations addressing bullying, including training students, teachers and other adults in a school community. The recommendations also note a growing body of research that suggests strong, punitive punishments against bullies are ineffective.

It notes that policies that call for schools to automatically suspend bullies could remove from school a student who needs as much support as a victim of bullying.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for intense interventions.

"The kids who are hurt need support; the kids who have done the hurting need support," Riestenberg said.