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USU research reveals what school bullying means, how to address it

Utah State University assistant professor Diana Meter presents her research on adolescent bullying in front of educators and community stakeholders on Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

Utah State University assistant professor Diana Meter presents her research on adolescent bullying in front of educators and community stakeholders on Tuesday in Salt Lake City. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — When Diana Meter was 13 years old, she experienced her first heartbreak and subsequently she began to notice her childhood friends begin to shift away.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Utah State University, Meter's experience feels much different after years have passed. Yet as a child, the distance and the rumors spread about her felt devastating.

"We all remember when we were bullied. We all remember if we had a child or a sibling or a friend who was bullied and what that felt like. Even though the reason for it may not be something that we as adults consider to be very important or very meaningful, when you're a kid, when your peer group is so important to you ... and part of your identity development and who you are as a person, it can be really impactful to have those experiences," Meter said.

Meter presented her findings on adolescent bullying in her paper "Defenders, Bullies, and Victims: The Social Ecology of Adolescence" to an audience of community leaders and educators Tuesday. The presentation was a part of the Blue Plate Research event series by Utah State University.

The series is intended to highlight discoveries and research efforts at USU in the areas of health and well-being, while expanding conversations to community stakeholders and advocates.

Meter explored what bullying or "peer victimization" can look like beyond just the aggressors and victims, the way it affects the well-being of youth, warning signs and intervention tips, and what's happening specifically in Utah.

The defenders

Peer victimization can appear in the form of physically violent acts, verbal assaults including racial and homophobic slurs, and social aggression. Social aggression can be seen in what Meter nicknamed "mean girl behavior," such as acts of isolation, spreading rumors and backstabbing.

Despite the nickname, Meter noted that her research revealed that both boys and girls tend to be socially aggressive to a similar degree. Her research also revealed that while roles typically observed in the dynamic are aggressor and victim, children can also take other roles in the social dynamics. Other roles include children who assist or reinforce the aggressor's behavior, a group called outsiders who choose not to engage with the behavior at all, and a group Meter calls the defenders.

Defenders are the group of children who intervene against the aggressor's behavior, either directly or indirectly. Defenders can be a vital part in intervening in concerning social structures among children by effectively decreasing peer victimization, she said.

"We might label kids in our research using this type of terminology but when we're talking about actual kids I would be very hesitant to do so. ... Kids don't necessarily fit one of these roles," said Meter. "The most important thing is to identify behavior and try to help kids overcome behavior rather than trying to label a kid."

Her research revealed that social dynamics between children can often shift and children can find themselves in different roles. Girls take the defender role more often than boys, as do younger children versus older children, she noted. While many may encourage children to take on the defender role, Meter found that certain roles children play may experience social consequences.

While defenders were less likely to be victimized, Meter found that "the youth who were engaging and defending were less liked by their peers, according to peer reports of who liked who they liked in the school."

What are the signs of victimization and how do we address it?

Meter encouraged parents to search for signs that their children might be experiencing victimization. Indicators include children appearing more withdrawn, lack of interest in attending school and physical indicators such as headaches or stomachaches. While many children may not want to attend school for a variety of reasons beyond bullying, Meter encourages parents to ask them why.

If a child reveals that they are indeed being bullied, she suggests the following:

  • Arrange a meeting with key stakeholders such as all parents involved, the school and a mediator.
  • Follow your children on social media sites that they use to observe their interactions with their peers and the language used.
  • Validate the child's experience and avoid attempting to justify the aggressor's behavior. Don't suggest that if the child acted, dressed, or looked a different way that the bullying may not occur.
  • Model appropriate behavior in resolving conflict with peers.

How does it appear in Utah schools?

"Kids report that bullying is occurring for a lot of the same reasons that we see nationally. Very commonly it's because of things like what people look like, being unpopular," Meter said.

Smaller percentages also report race, ethnicity, background or nationality, and gender or sexual identity as additional indicators of who is being bullied.

"We have to be really careful when we're looking at some of these statistics, because we're asking every kid in school, 'Are you experiencing victimization? And if so, why?' If we have a school that has very few kids who identify as racial and ethnic minorities, we're going to have a very small percentage of kids report," she said.

That data was a point brought up by Rep. Sandra Hollins, who introduced HB428, called Izzy's Bill, after a 10-year-old student in the Davis School District died by suicide in November 2021. Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor died after her family said she experienced bullying for her race and autism. An independent investigation found "no direct evidence to support the allegations that Izzy was bullied on the basis of race and/or disability," according to a Davis School District report in April, which said there may have been other instances of bullying and that educators at her school were "unfamiliar with the district's definition of 'bullying" and failed to document the family's allegations.

The school district had previously been subjected to an investigation by the Department of Justice, which found "serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students" last October. The district has since settled with the department and held several work sessions to address the problem.

HB428 was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox following the 2022 legislative session. Local education agencies are now required by law to adopt plans for harassment-free and discrimination-free learning and to report data on the demographics of the victims.

"We have real big issues because as I've started working on this issue, I've been receiving phone calls from all over Utah and we have teachers who are being bullied by other teachers. We have students bullying each other. We have parents bullying other parents," Hollins said.

"And so it's not surprising to me that our kids are bullying because we have adults who don't, who won't, behave in front of the young people."

Other commenters included educators who said they feel unequipped to deal with the issue and parents who express frustration at mismatched policies and consequences.

"All schools are supposed to have anti-bullying policies in place. They're going to be enforced to different degrees and I think that you know, ensuring that schools are taking these things seriously and following through on the policies that are in place can be really helpful," Meter said.

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Utah K-12 educationUtah State UniversityUtah higher educationUtahEducation
Ashley Fredde covers human services, minority communities and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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