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Why we should all care about bullying, even if our kid isn’t a ‘victim’

October is Bullying Awareness Month, but the kids who face it everyday don’t need a month to remember it: For some, feeling bullied impacts their entire lives. And for others—those who aren’t direct “victims”—the impact is also real.

Forms of victimization have ripple effects throughout schools, says Bernice Garnett, associate professor in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont, and author of a new study on bullying published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma.

“If we only center the conversation about kids who are being bullied that limits it to 'that's not my kid,'" Garnett says. “But if we change the conversation to bullying can actually damage the entire school climate then that motivates and galvanized the overall will of the school community to do something about it.”

This confirms the importance of all of us investing in ending bullying, whether our own children appear to be directly affected or not.

Parents and policymakers can and should help kids come together to change course in a positive way. Even when it’s not our kid, of course we should be doing something about it and teaching our kids to do something, too.

Bullying is everywhere—and can happen in multiple ways

Garnett’s study, which was based on data from the 2015 Vermont Middle and High School Pilot Climate Survey, also confirmed how pervasive bullying can be: 43.1% of students experienced at least one form of victimization during the 2015 to 2016 school year.

When the kids were asked to break it down further, 32% said they’d been bullied, 21% said they’d been cyberbullied and 16.4% said they’d been harassed because of their skin, religion, country of birth, gender, sexual identity or disability.

No matter how the cruelty is classified—hallway harassment, cyberbullying or in-person bullying—it all hurts both the individual and the greater school community.

When a child is the target of more than one kind of victimization, he’s experiencing polyvictimization, according to Garnett, which impacts his ability to achieve.

The kids who are most likely to be bullied on multiple levels identify as female or transgender. When it comes to race, the kids who check the "multiracial" or "other" box are also more likely to experience polyvictimization.

Ending bullying begins with talking about discrimination

“This study is trying to show that we need to be thinking about the structural forces that make bullying prevalent among certain groups of kids, which is not a coincidence,” says Garnett. “The reason why queer youth, English Language Learners, kids with disabilities and overweight kids are targeted is because those are socially acceptable identities to target depending on where you live.”

According to her, adults should rethink empathy-focused anti-bullying campaigns in favor of more nuanced conversations about identity-based discrimination. Then they should lead kids to question their own thoughts and beliefs about other groups, and what they’re learning from their community and the media.

When we teach our kids to ask themselves why someone being targeted, rather than simply asking them to be empathetic, we’re helping them see their own biases (and maybe our own) for what they are.

Recognizing the problem is the first step in galvanizing the school community—and then community at large—against bullying. And when bullying stops, everyone benefits.

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