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Verbal Put-Downs Common in All Types of High Schools, Researcher Finds


Several media outlets reported earlier this month on a study pointing up high rates of verbal harassment in the nation's high schools. Christy Lleras, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, analyzed survey data on more than 10,600 high school students and found that one in five had been verbally put down by a classmate at some point in his or her high school career.

That is disturbing, but I was intrigued by a secondary finding in this study that drew much less attention. Lleras found that teenage insults are just as common—and, in some cases, more so— in private schools, smaller public schools, and public schools that serve a more socioeconomically advantaged student population as they are in all those overpopulated, disadvantaged, public schools that we hear so much about. (In fact, the study found that African-American and Hispanic students overall are less likely than white students to report being put down by classmates.)

I'm surprised, because I thought the whole point of the small-schools movement was to create a more nurturing, affirming climate for kids. Likewise, many parents seek out private schools precisely because they perceive the environment to be a more protective one for their children. So what is going on here? The study doesn't explain.

I need to offer a caveat at this point: Students at those private schools, small public schools, and better-off high schools were also more likely to say they felt safe—at least from physical harm—than peers in other types of schools. But insults hurt, too, and this study suggests that it takes more than a new school structure, nicer facilities, and richer classmates to build a true community. A cynic might see the results as confirmation of the axiom, "kids will be kids."

In other findings, the study notes that boys experience more verbal harassment than girls. Again, that was especially true for boys in private schools.

Among African-American and Hispanic teenagers, the study also found, students who thought of themselves as "good students" seemed to be particular targets of harassment—but only in schools with high concentrations of minority students.

Lleras doesn't believe that the hostile climate surrounding those students causes achievement gaps, but it may contribute. She says:

"Sadly, verbal harassment is just one more thing these students have to deal with, and as long as we accept it, because it's not physical bullying, we're doing a grave disservice to the kids who need non-disruptive and focused learning environments the most."

Curious to read more? Here's a link to the full study and to the press release from the university. The study also appeared in the Journal of School Violence.


Debra--I did short stint working with white, upper middle class children and youth, after years of working with a diversity of ethnicities and SES, although primarily lower income folks in a midwestern inner-city neighborhood. Personally I was unprepared for the culture shock I experienced. I found that cliquishness was not only frequently overlooked, it was both subtly and overtly encouraged at times. Parents put a premium on getting into the "right" group of friends. Attempts to foster anything more egalitarian--that is, enlarging the realm of experience--were greated with suspicion or actively fought.

If you think about it, retreat to private schools, or those with high "entry fees" in terms of the ability to buy into a high priced neighborhood, are inherently elitist. Keeping undesireables at bay is part and parcel of the deal.

I frequently saw institutionalized ugliness that was dismissed as just good fun, or tradition. Remember that these are the kinds of places that one finds "hazing" practices. I just didn't see that kind of thing in the 'hood. I certainly didn't see parents defending it.

I'm hearing about similar experiences from some of my colleagues. I hope the students that you observed didn't grow up to be our current and future leaders.

"Put downs" and teasing have been part of our society for at least the fifty-one years that I have been alive. Adults actively engage in this same activity. Why are we surprised that students behave in the same way and why does there need to be a study to confirm it?

One in Five? HA! I am a HS Counselor, and any "Study Result" less than 99% is erroneous....

I have worked in lower economic communities and discovered that verbal put downs are nonexistence. It was more of a family and collaborative approach to keep our community functioning.
When I was teaching in a private school I discovered that many had their own agenda and felt it was acceptable to classify people according to their incomes. students from certain families were given the grade they did not earn from some teachers and larger contributors students were often given so many chances that it was not a treat to have these students in your class. Thank God for public schools.

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