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Has Trump's Campaign Rhetoric Really Caused an Increase in School Bullying?

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With a little more than a month to go in the presidential campaigns, the nation's largest teachers' union launched a push Monday to tie Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's "inflammatory rhetoric" to an increase in bullying in America's schools.

The National Education Association's campaign against "The Trump Effect" will include internet and direct mail components targeted at votes in key states. It follows similar statements by the American Federation of Teachers, which joined with the NEA in endorsing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

But can Trump's statements on the trail—as harsh and unconventional as they may be—be blamed for an increase in bullying? Has there even been an overall increase in bullying? One researcher says it's way too early to tell. More on that in a second.

Trump Is a 'Bad Example,' Teachers' Union Says

"As educators, we teach our kids that kindness, collaboration, and cooperation are important not just in school, but in in life," said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. "Donald Trump sets an example that teaches the wrong lesson. He calls women fat pigs, wants to ban Muslims from coming to the country, refers to Mexicans as criminals, and makes fun of people with disabilities. The rise in vitriolic speech in classrooms and the anxiety this causes for some of our most vulnerable students shows that Trump's rhetoric is far more damaging than previously imagined." 

Monday's launch included events in many states, including some considered important electoral battlegrounds: Iowa, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  They involved educators sharing stories of seeing "The Trump Effect" in classrooms.

"Since Trump entered the race for president last year, educators have witnessed a steady increase in bullying and harassing behavior that mirrors his words and actions on the campaign trail," the NEA said in an announcement of the events.

Like AFT President Randi Weingarten did previously, the NEA cited a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that detailed anecdotal reports of bullying teachers have tied to Trump.

As I reported when that report came out in April, the report's findings, based on a non-scientific survey, may have been skewed by the nature of its respondents. About 2,000 K-12 teachers responded to the survey, after visiting the Teaching Tolerance website or being referred by its mailing list, which suggests they may have a higher level of sensitivity or interest in issues related to racial and cultural sensitivity.

The survey didn't mention specific candidates, but respondents overwhelmingly singled out billionaire businessman and Republican frontrunner Donald J. Trump as the most problematic. Many also said students who are immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.

Around the country, news reports have detailed incidents like students cheering against an opposing basketball team from a largely Hispanic high school by holding up signs that say "Trump." And, as Education Week detailed last month, teachers say this election has been especially difficult to teach in the classroom.

"I try to be very neutral in class—that's always been my philosophy," Erik Anderson, a U.S. government teacher at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minn., told reporter Madeline Will. "Probably for the first time, there have been some things said in the campaign that I can't just ignore. I have to say, 'This isn't right.' I don't remember ever before being unable to play it right down the middle."

Can Donald Trump Be Tied to an Increase in Bullying?

But a bullying researcher who previously led efforts for the U.S. Department of Education says anecdotal reports alone aren't enough to conclude that there's been an increase in bullying and that a presidential candidate is the cause.

"We actually don't know if bullying is going up," said Deborah Temkin, who is now the director of education research for the nonpartisan Child Trends. "And we won't know that until well after the election. We don't even know if there is a reason to look for a cause if bullying rates are going up."

That's not to say that teachers' stories of mean or hurtful classroom comments related to the election aren't relevant, or that concerns about the tone of an election aren't significant, she said. But it's important to note that those anecdotes aren't a replacement for careful, quantitative scientific research about bullying rates.

"It's really risky to say a single factor is causing an increase in bullying ... I think it can take away from some of the great research that's been done in this area," Temkin said.

Why is it risky?

If all of the attention is pointed to an external factor as a cause of bullying, "schools might be quick to say this is something beyond what we can control and take a more hands-off approach," she said.

In other words, schools need to have the same deliberate, thoughtful approach to resolving and preventing bullying situations, regardless of the cause.

Bullying researchers are really cautious about asserting new theories about its causes, rates, and solutions without rigorous research. That's in part because there's already a really muddled public discussion about the subject, which relies on sometimes conflicting definitions of what bullying is and a tendency by some to see it as a touchy feely issue that doesn't warrant a serious response.

In general, federal data shows rates of bullying have trended downward in recent years or remained somewhat steady, depending on how bullying is defined on student questionnaires used to track the issue.

So, how could researchers determine if Trump's rhetoric has corresponded with an increase in bullying or other forms of peer harrassment? Using an interrupted time series design, Temkin said. That's a fancy way of saying researchers would analyze several years of data to determine if they see spikes tied to specific events. Federal data is collected by several agencies using different methods, and it is usually a few years old by the time it's released.

Temkin said the NEA has been "a great partner in bullying prevention efforts."

"I think the issue here is just the framing of causality without having that research base to support it," she said.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in September 2015. --Julie Jacobson/AP

Related reading about bullying, Donald Trump, and the presidential campaign:

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