How California students from marginalized groups are working to stop bullying

Students in marginalized groups are more likely to be bullied than the average student. But by working together, some of them have found a way to fight back.

According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Education, of the 96,360 students surveyed, Black, Native American, Asian, female and disabled students were all disproportionately more likely to be bullied. And of the alleged bullying incidents, 41% involved the victim’s gender, 23% involved race, 16% involved sexual orientation and 8% involved religion.

LGBTQ students may be the most bullied of all student groups in California.

According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, which is distributed annually in about 70% of California school districts, LGBTQ students are consistently bullied twice as much as straight students at all grade levels in middle and high school. The 2019 state snapshot from GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) said California schools were “not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) secondary school students.”

Nathalie Carrasco, 17, is a junior at Lawndale High School in the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Los Angeles County. She’s also the president of the school’s Queer Straight Alliance, which was founded during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are going through mental health crises right now,” she said. The club is “just like a safe space for everyone to be.”

The organization has proved to be a haven for students to get together and talk about issues or sometimes, just play video games.

And that’s important: “We’re watching adults show up to harass kids. It’s like they’ve given permission to say whatever they want,” said a.t. furuya, the senior youth programs manager for GLSEN. “I think the message sent to LGBTQ+ students is that it’s OK to harass us and that they’re fake or don’t matter. And that has a long-lasting impact.”

Muslim students face similar issues, according to Amr Shabaik, the civil rights managing attorney for the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and author of CAIR-LA’s 2021 bullying report.

According to the report, 47.1% of 708 surveyed students ages 11 to 18 reported being bullied for being Muslim between August 2018 to August 2021. And 55.7% reported feeling unsafe at school because of their faith. Those numbers mirror results of surveys conducted by CAIR around the country.

“That’s one of those things you see repeated over and over,” Shabaik said. “Unfortunately, they’re not unique circumstances and are experienced by many students.”

Nearly a quarter of surveyed Muslim students reported an adult at school had made a disparaging comment about their religion. In one case in Orange County, CAIR says, a teacher reportedly called a Muslim student a “terrorist” in front of her class and told her she didn’t belong in this country.

Among various ethnic groups of students, a California Healthy Kids Survey found that, between 2017 and 2019, more Asian and Pacific Islander students were bullied than students of other backgrounds.

“It’s been persistent,” said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “Asians have been the most bullied minority group. We’re largely an immigrant group where people don’t always speak English. And we often have smaller statue. So we’re often a target for bullies.”

Since the return to the classroom this school year, Jeung said, rates of bullying have worsened for Asian American students.

“I think people are still blaming Asians for the pandemic. We’re still in it, we’re still in economic distress,” Jeung said. “And students weren’t in classrooms, but now they are, so there’s an opportunity for bullying.”

Shabaik said school districts can and should do more to prevent bullying.

“We believe schools should be performing their own assessments” of school climate, he said. “Schools can take active steps and measures to make sure (bullying and harassment) doesn’t occur.”

San Bernardino City Unified took steps to address racially motivated bullying, according to Mia Cooper, vice president of the district’s African-American Advisory Council.

“The district came up with a bullying strategy, where they had different parents, community, faculty and students on board,” Cooper explained. “Now they have a whole intervention department where, if there’s an issue, it’s down to them. They investigate it and see, is it more teasing, is it more bullying, and then they investigate from there.”

Things have improved in the district, according to Cooper, but she estimates that about 50% of bullying experienced by Black students in the district still has a racial component.

Shabaik would like to see all administrators and teachers receive anti-harassment and anti-bullying training.

“We also believe that districts should develop anti-racist curriculums that are standard for all students,” Shabaik said. “That helps students see themselves reflected in their education and not in a negative light.”

CAIR-LA offers training to school districts about anti-bullying, Islam and more.

“We’re willing to work with schools, other groups are willing to work with schools,” Shabaik said. “Districts need to be more proactive and not sweep it under the rug and say ‘it’s not a problem in our schools.’”

According to a new Southern California News Group analysis, 33.5% of middle school and high school students who took the California Healthy Kids Survey said they had been bullied or harassed in the past 12 months. But how seriously districts take bullying, and how well they work to prevent it, varies widely. Analyzed districts ranged from 11% of students reporting they’d been bullied or harassed, up to 59%.

Cooper wants to see school districts have a space for minority students to be seen and heard, whether that’s a student organization or other forms of support.

“I think the only way that things are going to be OK, that things are going to be fixed, is if (students) have a safe space to come and talk about what (they’re) facing,” she said.

There are signs of hope.

“There’s a significant number of supportive adults that students can identify with at schools than in the past,” GLSEN’s furuya said. “So that’s a positive improvement.”

Gay Straight Alliance clubs are taking root in more schools, which studies show is good for all students.

“We also know that GSAs in general, from what students are reporting, improves a sense of wellness and inclusion for all students, not just LGBTQ+ students,” furuya said.

But the most powerful way to stop bullying linked to prejudice and discrimination may be students working together to end it.

2020 report prepared by the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign recommended increased collaboration between various groups such as Black student unions or Gay Straight Alliance clubs.

“That peer-to-peer outreach was more effective than school-wide assemblies,” Jeung said. “When you have multi-racial groups working together, they’re more open to learning.”

GLSEN’s annual Solidarity Week emphasizes this sort of intersectional support, with different groups coming together to advocate for one another.

“I do see reasons for hope, with students advocating for affinity groups, advocating for themselves. And there’s a major movement of parents for ethnic studies in the classroom,” Jeung said. “We’re trying to institutionalize change; it’s not just these Band-Aids or Asian History Month.”

This story is part of a 2021 Data Fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

[This article was originally published by The Sun.]

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