The high price of bullying in the US

School children Around one-fifth of high school students say they experience bullying in the US

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A global report on school violence identifies bullying as the biggest problem in US school playgrounds.

Slut. Fat. Gay. Those are some common words - weapons - America's youth uses to target each other in bullying.

A global report released on Monday by children's development organisation Plan International gauges the economic impact of school violence, which it categorised as corporal punishment, sexual abuse and bullying.

The US pays a high price for its youth violence, both in and out of schools. Plan estimated the total cost of all forms of youth violence at $158bn (£100bn).

Counting the cost

Bag of money

Plan International and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) calculated the cost of school violence in 13 countries to be $60bn in the following way:

  • By following the same model used to calculate other violence
  • By looking at the lost earnings of a person who misses school or drops out because of school violence.
  • By measuring the loss in public spending on education because of violence-related absenteeism

However, the report also recognises a huge gap in data. School violence is "notoriously under-reported" and a lot of costs are difficult to tally up.

Pervasive problem

At schools around the world, the playground is far from the innocent haven where the ring of a school bell signals the start of children's laughter.

Instead, for too many, it becomes an ugly arena where spectators can watch youngsters pit themselves against each other.

Some 20% to 65% of children worldwide say they suffer from bullying, but that proportion may be higher because school violence is "notoriously under-reported", the report says.

In the US, around a fifth of high school students said they experienced repeated, intentional bullying, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

"Younger kids are more likely to be bullied and prevalence tends to be higher in middle school," said Marci Hertz, an adviser at CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Bullying also tends to be higher among girls, she says.

"It seems to be a very pervasive problem."

Indeed, the prevalence of bullying is so high that CDC treats it as a public health issue.

"As a result of being bullied, you don't attend school, you're losing the opportunity to learn," says Julie Hertzog, director of the National Center for Bullying Prevention run by the Pacer children's organisation.

One way that Plan calculated the cost of school violence was to look at the potential income a person lost because of missed schooling.

Digital media

Then there are the worst-case scenarios.

In January, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from Massachusetts, took her own life after what prosecutors called relentless bullying, including cyber-bullying. In one instance, classmates scratched her face out of a class photo.

And in a high-profile case in September, Tyler Clementi, 18, a student from Rutgers University, jumped off George Washington Bridge after an intimate video of him with a man was leaked online.

Start Quote

Now with the internet, cell phones, kids have the capacity to bully and reach hundreds, thousands”

End Quote Julie Hertzog Director, Pacer's National Center for Bullying Prevention

Also last month, 13-year-olds Seth Walsh and Asher Brown committed suicide in separate incidents after being bullied for being gay.

As younger generations dive headfirst into a kaleidoscope of digital media that their parents did not grow up with, the voice of a bully has the ability to be amplified.

"Now with the internet, cellphones, kids have the capacity to bully and reach hundreds, thousands," Ms Hertzog says.

Parents needed to be aware of what their children were doing online, but not react by taking it away, she added.

However, experts at CDC also acknowledge that there are positive uses of the internet.

"Technology is not all bad. Parents shouldn't ban their kids from using the internet, the CDC's Marci Hertz says.

"Some kids may feel more comfortable interacting with other kids online and there are a lot [who] use the web to access a lot of health information."

'Sticks and stones'

Not so long ago, bullying was seen as normal - some claimed it was just part of the rite of growing up.

But, for those like Barbara Coloroso, a bullying educator, it is a far cry from "normal aggression".

Around the world

  • In 88 countries, including France and several states in the US, teachers are legally allowed to physically punish their pupils
  • In Egypt, 80% of boys and 67% of girls have said they have experienced corporal punishment
  • In Guatemala, "the foregone benefit" to society from early dropout is nearly 59% of the country's GDP

Source: The Economic Impact of School Violence (ODI and Plan International, 2010)

"That's because it's not about a conflict. Bullying is about contempt for another human being," she said.

"It's a short walk from schoolyard bullying to school violence."

The Plan International report describes a "close relationship" between school bullying and youth violence.

As such, the estimated cost outlined in the report includes other forms of youth violence.

"Youth violence-related death is the second most leading cause of death, especially amongst black youth," said Corrine Ferdon, a health scientist at the CDC.

Among youth homicides between the ages of 10 and 24, the vast majority - 84% - were killed with a firearm, according to CDC data.

The same CDC survey showed that 6% of students carried a gun to school in the 30 days before data was collected.

But bullying does not follow directly from youth violence, according to Dr Gary Slutkin, executive director of violence prevention group CeaseFire.

"Bullying is not the same thing as lethal violence but it can escalate, and US society has been gradually making the decision that this is no longer to be accepted as normal," said Dr Slutkin, whose organisation treats youth violence by using a public health model.

But bullying, even without the guns, knives and blood, is hurtful in its own right.

"We often dismissed bullying because of the whole 'sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you,' but that's a lie," bullying expert Ms Coloroso said.

"Calling other kids gross sexual or ethnic terms is violent. Physical wounds heal the easiest," she says.

"You don't have to like that kid but you have to honour his humanity."

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