When It Comes to Bullying, Mean Girls Still Rule the School

A new U.S. Department of Education Survey reveals that overall harassment is down, but female students are the biggest target.

(Photo: Martin Dimitrov/Getty Images)

May 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If you’ve seen the movie Mean Girls, you’ll recall that it didn’t take much for a student to end up in the “Burn Book”—the notebook where the popular clique of high school girls, the Plastics, jotted down horrible comments and gossip about other, mostly female students. A girl’s weight, sexual orientation, nerdiness, unfashionable clothing, or romantic interest could all make her the target of bullying by the clique.

The film’s premise seems to be reflected in data from a new survey from the U.S. Department of Education. While overall reported incidents of bullying dropped between 2011 and 2013 in the nation’s middle and high schools, girls are more likely to say they were harassed verbally, physically, on social media, or through text messages.

Researchers from the department’s National Center for Education Statistics surveyed a nationally representative sample of students in grades six through 12 who were between the ages of 12 and 18. The respondents were asked if they had been made fun of, called names, made the subject of rumors, physically abused, excluded from activities, or cyberbullied, or had their belongings destroyed.

Given that criteria, 22 percent of all responding students reported being bullied in 2013, a 6 percent drop since 2011 and the lowest level since 2005, when the center first began collecting such data. But nearly one-fourth of girls reported that they were the object of harassment, compared with 20 percent of boys.

In recent years, some of the highest-profile bullying-related incidents have involved teen girls. In 2010, the tragic suicide of 15-year-old Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince brought international attention to the pervasiveness of harassment in America’s schools and renewed calls for schools to step up their campus anti-bullying efforts.

Prince had been a victim of a months-long bullying campaign by a real-life clique of mean girls and boys and was found dead after hanging herself at her home. Princes death and the trial of the other students, who were subsequently convicted of criminal harassment, and the suicides of other teens in similar situations turned the spotlight on how parents, teachers, and administrators sometimes ignore bullying incidents or don’t take them seriously enough when students report them.

A one-off assembly at the beginning of the school year at which zero-tolerance policies are explained to students has become common in the nations middle and high schools. However, according to the survey, nearly 36 percent of girls reported being bullied in classrooms—right under the noses of their teachers.

The Department of Education’s researchers didn’t offer a reason for why girls are more likely to report being bullied than boys. But according to the organization No Bullying, boys tend to use physical intimidation, while girls are twice as likely to use more covert—yet equally damaging—tactics, such as harassment on social media or gossip. That makes the behavior easier for adults to ignore.

Still, some officials see the drop in overall bullying as a sign that the efforts of schools are working. “The report brings welcome news,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement. “Parents, teachers, health providers, community members, and young people are clearly making a difference by taking action and sending the message that bullying is not acceptable.”

But Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that plenty of work still needs to be done to stop bullying in schools. “Even though weve come a long way over the past few years in educating the public about the health and educational impacts that bullying can have on students, we still have more work to do to ensure the safety of our nations children,” he said in a statement.