Those cases have prompted parents and school officials to ask whether we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg, since bullying often takes place off the radar screen of grown-ups. While overall incidents of school violence, such as assault and theft, have declined in the last decade, bullying is on the rise. Just ask our kids. According to a 2009 federal survey of school crime and safety, 32 percent of middle and high school students said they'd been victimized during the academic year, compared with 14 percent in 2001. Among that group, 21 percent had been made fun of; 11 percent were pushed, tripped or spit on; and 6 percent were threatened.
But is any of that really worse than the verbal jabs, social slights and hard shoves today's parents endured while they were growing up? Most kids tease others and are teased from time to time; it's part of the harmless rough-and-tumble environment at all schools. Bullies, on the other hand, tend to target victims and subject them to repeated abuse. There is frequently a striking power imbalance between perpetrator and prey, whether it's a matter of age, size, academic achievement, popularity or economic status. This more virulent type of harassment has become all too common, according to experts. "The amount of bullying in schools is unprecedented," says Marlene Snyder, PhD, director of development at the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at Clemson University in South Carolina. "The public is becoming aware of how serious it can be."
Indeed, researchers have found that kids are particularly sensitive to intimidation and emotional cruelty. It makes them feel more fearful and anxious than if they were the victims of theft or a physical attack. And the suffering goes far beyond momentary humiliation. They are more likely to be distracted from learning, get poorer grades and become victims of violent crime. "They feel powerless," says Snyder, "and lose faith in the ability of adults to help them."
Legislators are recognizing that schools and communities need help to deal more effectively with the problem. Last spring Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that requires teachers to report incidents of bullying, and principals to investigate them. Forty-three other states now have laws against bullying and student-to-student intimidation, whether it takes place in the classroom or hallway, or on the playing field. The Department of Education recently unveiled the Safe and Supportive Schools grants, a $27 million discretionary fund for states to use to create in-school programs to prevent harassment and violence. Parents also need to be part of the solution. Learn what the experts have to say about who's hurting whom, the reasons why, and the steps you can take to keep your kids safe from harm.