For young people across the state, bullying has real consequences. Bullied teens are twice as likely to attempt or consider suicide, more likely to skip school, and more likely to earn lower grades. But the emotional trauma endured by those who experience bias- based bullying related to racism, homophobia, transphobia, weight-related stigma, and more is especially painful—and all too pervasive in Minnesota schools.
With support from Minnesota Masonic Charities, Marizen Ramirez, M.P.H., Ph.D., part of the U’s public health faculty, and Marla Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H., part of the pediatrics faculty, are working hard to help schools statewide address and prevent these experiences. Over the past year, they’ve made real headway toward this goal, hitting the road to interview dozens of students, parents, and staff from schools across Minnesota while analyzing extensive survey data from tens of thousands of teens.
While bullying prevention programs are not new to schools, they have not proven effective in stopping bias-based bullying, in particular. That’s because bias-based bullying, which often takes the form of verbal or social harassment rather than physical fighting, is less visible to school staff and therefore more difficult to respond to, says Eisenberg.
“We’re starting to see more nuanced expressions of violence against minority populations,” Ramirez explains. “Some are subtle microaggressions that might occur in language that’s being used, especially over the Internet. There are also feelings of institutional microaggressions being experienced by youth. This is in the realm of implicit bias where people aren’t completely conscious of the biases they express.”
"Students have told us they hear racial, ethnic, sexuality, gender, and weight-based slurs very frequently from different groups of people and not just one specific ‘bully,’” Eisenberg adds. “In this way, bias-based bullying becomes part of the backdrop or climate of the school, creating a hostile environment."
Biases aren’t just expressed by classmates, but by school staff as well. Youth are not being recognized for their diversity, Ramirez and Eisenberg say, and when incidents happen many staff are not responding in the way that students would like them to respond.
Ramirez and Eisenberg recall an interview with a school employee in greater Minnesota.
"This particular individual didn’t know what a hijab was and wasn’t understanding some of the cultural norms that are prevalent in a particular group,” says Ramirez. “It was really interesting to encounter someone who wasn’t aware of the attire that youth are choosing to wear,especially in a state like Minnesota where there’s a larger population of people from Muslim countries.”
Another common example of institutional bias is the misuse of gender pronouns for transgender and gender diverse students, Eisenberg says. “If a staff person refers to a student using their gender pronoun on record, rather than the gender pronoun the student identifies with, it can be really painful for that student.”
Equipping schools to do more
Ramirez and Eisenberg had almost completed their data collection when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring of 2020. “We were really lucky with the timing,” says Eisenberg. “While we had to cancel one interview, everything else was in the books.” So the team began a deep analysis of the data, which they plan to complete in the coming months.
Once their work is complete, they hope to provide resources to schools across Minnesota that will help fight bias-based bullying. Some of the many ways they hope to get the word out include peer-reviewed publications, professional development meetings with staff, fact sheets, and webinars.
Findings from this research might also be used to develop trauma-informed care interventions that are culturally responsive in addressing differences by race, ethnicity, physical appearance, or sexual orientation. What that looks like in practice, Ramirez says, could be implicit bias or cultural humility training for teachers, and more broadly, policies that are more proactive in responding to kids who have traumatic experiences with racism or discrimination.
"It’s about understanding that trauma impacts individuals and because racism and discrimination are forms of trauma, we could be re-traumatizing kids when we interact with them in certain ways," Ramirez explains.
The impact of Masonic support
When it comes to building a healthier future for children, one of the defining features of Masonic support is that it brings researchers together with unique expertise who may not otherwise have worked with each other.
Eisenberg is part of the U’s Department of Pediatrics, while Ramirez is part of its Division of Environmental Health Sciences. Ramirez has had an extensive career in injury and violence prevention. Eisenberg has had years of experience in researching social influences such as bullying on the health, wellbeing, and behavior of teens.
"Dr. Ramirez and I had never worked together before so it’s been really exciting to bring our areas of expertise together on this project," says Eisenberg. What’s more, they say, it has provided start-up support for their work, allowing them to pursue relatively new research in bias-based bullying that would otherwise be difficult to fund. "This is a wonderful gift to our work," Eisenberg says.
Fighting stigmas, and disparities
In addition to addressing the individual pain caused by bias-based bullying, Ramirez and Eisenberg hope their study can help address some of the disparities that exist between students of color, LGBTQ, and overweight students and their peers.
Research has shown that Minnesota youth who experience harassment based on race or ethnicity, weight, or sex have lower self-esteem, more depression, and higher rates of substance use and self-harming behaviors than students who have not experienced these types of harassment. This, in turn, exacerbates health and educational disparities.
“In a state that suffers from these significant disparities, exploring bias-based bullying among underrepresented children must be a priority,” says Ramirez. “We’re really appreciative of the support from Minnesota Masonic Charities and are looking forward to addressing some of the health inequities that are impacting kids in our state. That’s one thing that we hope to accomplish long term through this kind of research.”