Getting Answers: bullying cases decline during pandemic

Getting Answers: bullying cases decline during pandemic
Updated: May. 5, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - One in five high schoolers report being bullied each year, but a new Boston University study showed that bullying rates tumbled during the pandemic and have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“We have to keep talking about it. It’s one of those things that kind of gets brushed aside because nobody wants to talk about it,” said Sarah Goff, president of Unify Against Bullying.

Goff leads the local non-profit Unify Against Bullying, which raises money for anti-bullying initiatives in schools. Over the pandemic, those programs came to a halt and bullying, like school, went online.

“It’s really dangerous because people can be anonymous, so they have more freedom to say whatever they want and even if you’re not anonymous, you still feel like bolder, just hiding behind a screen,” said Julianna Zemba, a founding member of Unify Against Bullying.

A recent Boston University study tracked patterns using internet search data and found a 30 to 40 percent drop in bullying and cyberbullying when schools went remote.

“What was a surprise was that cyberbullying appeared to track in-person bullying. In other words, both declined at roughly the same rate,” said Andrew Bacher-Hicks, assistant professor of B.U.’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

Bacher-Hicks said this shows that in-person interaction is usually at the onset of both bullying and cyberbullying. Levels of both rose when schools re-opened.

“Even though bullying dropped during the pandemic, it remained lower than historical levels even when schools reopened for in-person instruction,” Bacher-Hicks added.

This, he theorized, could be due to more structured time in schools thanks to COVID-19 policies, like social distancing, but there have been drawbacks.

“I don’t know, again, if we’ve seen so much of an increase in bullying, but there has been an increase in aggressive behavior,” said Westfield Public Schools Superintendant Stefan Czaporowski.

Czaporowski said while there were fewer reports of bullying, with only 175 students disciplined for bullying last year statewide, compared to 941 in the 2018-2019 school year. Time at-home and increased anxiety has led to more conflicts and outbursts in school.

“When you’re in school, students are able to develop social skills and behavioral norms and being out of school for a year and a half-plus, we’re seeing a deficiency there and it is affecting behavior in school,” Czaporowski noted.

He said one out of every three students had some mental health concerns during the pandemic. The district brought in an outside counseling agency and hired eight additional counselors. Still, there is a list of students waiting to be seen.

“You know, there was a mental health focus that was beginning before the pandemic, but I think it has exacerbated that situation immensely,” Czaporowski added.

Czaporowski made a clear distinction between these one-off conflicts and bullying, which is repeated behavior. He said although it went unreported during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has not yet returned our request for recent data on bullying.

“If your child doesn’t share that with you or doesn’t share that with us, then we don’t know about it,” Czaporowski said.

Like most districts, Westfield has an anonymous online form where bullying reports can be submitted. Goff said kids often hide the fact that they’re being bullied, but parents may notice they’ve become more withdrawn or introverted.

“Talk to your kids, you know. Don’t sit there and be like, ‘Oh my God, is everything okay?’ You want to make sure that you’re having that open dialogue, so that if something does happen to them, they’re very comfortable coming to you,” Goff explained.

Just as important is encouraging your kid to step in if they see bullying and knowing that those hiding behind a screen do not dictate their self-worth.

“Anyone that’s receiving those messages, just know that the person who is saying those things to you does not matter the people who love you your friends your family those people’s opinions are the ones that matter,” Zemba added.