Practice Forum

A missing piece in the investigation of anti-bullying efforts within schools: The role of ethnicity

Bullying may include direct forms of aggression such as racial taunts and slurs and indirect forms of aggression, such as exclusion from a mainstream group of peers.

By Stephanie Grunewald

Bullying is a global issue that has been gripping headlines in recent years and school psychologists are left to grapple with the challenges related to combating this devastating behavior. A national survey of 15,686 students in grades six through 10 revealed that 29.9% of respondents were moderately or frequently involved in bullying behaviors (Nansel et al., 2001). Unfortunately, that statistic cannot demonstrate the variability of each individual student's experiences with bullying. In recent years, there has been a surge of research dedicated to the topic of bullying and how to combat the issue within schools (e.g., Bradshaw, Sawyer, & O'Brennan, 2007; Cook, Williams, Guerra, & Kim, 2010). Still, a shift in the way we explore and conceptualize bullying is needed. Despite the increase in the exploration of bullying behaviors, its various forms, and the consequences associated with these acts, a major oversight remains—the role of ethnicity influencing students' experiences with bullying. Taking into account the disparity that may exist among ethnically diverse students will prove to be vital in future prevention and intervention efforts. Current research (Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Varjas, Meyers, Bellmoff, Lopp, Birckbichler, & Marshall, 2008) does suggest that there are different rates of bullying behaviors across ethnic groups. Therefore, there is a need to examine current anti-bullying practices and the potential role of ethnicity as a critical variable in this process.

What Is Bullying?

The most commonly used definition of bullying states “a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students…a negative action [is] when someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort upon another…” (Olweus, 1993, p. 9). Many researchers have taken on the task of expanding on this general definition and have also worked to define the various forms of bullying. Unfortunately, ethnic implications are often not explored or incorporated into revised definitions of the term.

Regardless of definitions and types of bullying, there is ample evidence showing the negative implications these behaviors have on the bullies,, the victims, and even the bystanders. As Aluedse (2006) plainly stated, “the most extreme consequence of bullying for victims and the society is violence including suicide and murder” (p. 41). This is an unfortunate reality seen in a recent surge of youth committing suicide due to relentless bullying and in-school shootings fueled by a need to avenge bullies. In fact, a study on safe schools investigating school shootings between 1974 and 2000 identified bullying as a motive:

In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002, p. 21)

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has also included chronic bullying and relational aggression as forms of school violence, which must be addressed in order to promote safe schools (National Association of School Psychologists [NASP], 2006). Additionally, the American Psychological Association (APA) has created a variety of resources for parents, teachers, and students alike to provide information related to various forms of bullying. Such efforts highlight the need to better understand bullying in an attempt to be able to intervene. Thus, gaining greater insight into the various experiences students have and the factors that may influence experiences with bullying is vital for practitioners to begin combatting this issue; one suggested variable is ethnicity.

What Is Ethnicity?

Although a comprehensive explanation of term ethnicity is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note some of the debate surrounding this term. For many years, researchers have questioned whether race and ethnicity are the same thing and whether these terms can be used synonymously. Many studies often use only demographic characteristics to examine the implications of ethnicity, which would imply that race alone can be used to explore ethnicity. However, race and ethnicity have also been described as very different terms. Specifically, race is a term distinguishing skin color, facial features, hair color, and other observable genetic differences (Thomas & Schwarzbaum, 2006). On the other hand, “ethnicity includes three components: cultural values, attitudes, and behaviors” (Thomas & Schwarzbaum, p. 8). In relation to understanding bullying, a point at which race and ethnicity overlap is that both help to explain individual and societal behaviors and attitudes (Thomas & Schwarzbaum).

Does Bullying Differ Among Ethnically Diverse Groups?

In addition to Owleus' widely used definition of bullying, another definition was created to address one specific form of bullying—ethnic bullying:

This form of bullying may include direct forms of aggression such as racial taunts and slurs, derogatory references to culturally-specific customs, foods, and costumes, as well as indirect forms of aggression, such as exclusion from a mainstream group of peers because of ethnic differences. (McKenney, Pepler, Craig, & Connolly, 2006, p. 242)

Furthermore, the reported 29.9% prevalence rate of bullying among youth in the United States (Nansel et al., 2001) was further broken down by ethnicity and revealed that 8.5% of Caucasian children, 8.3% of African American children, and 10.4% of Hispanic children reported being bullied weekly (Nansel et al.). While this does not indicate extreme disparity in reporting rates among ethnically diverse students, it does suggest that differences do exist. Other studies have delved deeper into whether ethnicity impacts an individual's experiences with bullying. For example, a study in California reported that 26% of Hispanic students, 22% of Asian students, 18% of multiethnic students, and 7% of African American students reported being bullied because of race, ethnicity, or national origin (Lai & Tov, 2004 as cited in Scherr & Larson). This study suggests that not only do students experience bullying due to their ethnicity but their experiences with bullying may also vary due to their ethnicity.

However, it is important to note that the groups of students used to explore bullying experiences may vary and, as such, impact the findings. A Canadian study found that 17% of all elementary students and 17% of all high school students reported that they experienced ethnic bullying (Scherr & Larson, 2010). Another study in London revealed that 65% of elementary students reported ethnic teasing (Scherr & Larson, 2010). While both of these studies highlight that ethnic bullying is occurring, the specifics of the populations were not provided, which makes it difficult to compare these findings to related studies. Furthermore, there may be differences reported among students based on the numerical majority/ minority population within the school. Taken together, this demonstrates that there is a complexity of issues that must be carefully considered when exploring the implications of ethnicity on bullying experiences.

In addition to investigating the role of ethnicity in reporting rates, trends have also begun to emerge regarding the characteristics of students most likely identified as bullies, victims, and bullyvictims. Evidence suggests that African American youth were most likely to be classified as bullies, victims, and bullyvictims when compared to Hispanic students (Peskin, Tortolero, & Markham, 2006; Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster 2003). Other findings have indicated that Caucasian students are more likely to be classified as victims than Hispanic students (Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Juvonen et al.) whereas African American students and Caucasian students did not differ in rates of victimization (Hanish & Guerra). However, it was found that African American adolescents reported lower prevalence of victimization than Caucasian and Hispanic adolescents (Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, & Haynie, 2007). Despite these discrepancies among findings on Caucasian, African American and Hispanic students, Asian students reported consistent ratings of the prevalence of bullying. In fact, Asian students were the least likely to be classified as bullies (Juvonen et al.), yet were disproportionately victims of bullying (Mouttapa, Valente, Gallaher, Rohrbach, & Unger, 2004). Regardless of the differing reports on the extent of bullying among ethnically diverse students, one thing was consistent—bullying was experienced in some capacity by all students of all ethnicities.

Implications for Research and Practice

Given the importance of this topic and the high occurrence within the school, the school psychologist is in an ideal position to help combat this behavior by taking a leadership role in prevention and intervention efforts. However, there is currently a gap in the research available regarding how to best address bullying and the practice of applying such techniques in diverse schools all across the United States. Therefore, a call for additional research is evident.

To date, increased time and attention has been dedicated to studying the impact of bullying on the bullies, the victims, the bully-victims, and more recently the bystanders. Bullying is a major cause of fear that keeps children from perceiving school as a safe place—an estimated 160,000 students miss school each day due to the fear of violence (Lee, 1993). Furthermore, evidence suggests that bullying negatively impacts students' perception of the psychosocial environment of the school, which may in turn lead to the students reacting aggressively or with avoidance (Meyer- Adams & Conner, 2008). Whether students miss school due to bullying or are in fear all day, they are missing the opportunity to fully engage in the academic time that school was created to provide.

School psychologists and researchers have several avenues from which to explore the potential impact of ethnicity on bullying experiences. The composition of the student body within a school is one factor that must be considered when investigating bullying. If there is any one group that holds majority status in the school that may lead to a power differential and thus lead to bullying based on a minority/majority status within a school. Even schools with a relatively equal distribution of ethnically diverse students may encounter issues based on perceived social status of groups within the schools. Both possibilities merit additional research.

In considering the way students group together, it is important to not only consider how there may be bullying between groups but also within each group. Certain customs and values are important and if a member of a group does not uphold those traditions, they are as likely to be ostracized by ethnically similar peers. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that bullying based on ethnicity does not solely imply that bullying is happening between various ethnic groups, but also calls of the exploration of how bullying may occur within an ethnic group.

Not only is it important to investigate whether differences exist in experiences with bullying, but also with what students perceive to be bullying. Often, schools have a definition in mind regarding what constitutes bullying but this may not be in line with what the students perceive to be bullying. By taking the time to actively explore student perspectives, and implement practices based on the findings, schools will increase their likelihood of having a real impact with anti-bullying efforts.

While many researchers have started to explore ways of investigating the presence of bullying and responding to it, it is necessary to not only look at the data collected to determine the frequency of the behavior, but whether or not it differs among the groups present within the school. As with all facets of school psychology, the hope is to bridge the gap between practice and research in a manner that will allow for culturally responsive practice. In thinking of bullying in terms of factors that may influence the likelihood of its occurrence, with ethnicity serving as one of many such factors, researchers need to consider ways of exploring what is happening and be prepared to consider ways of addressing it.


Although the current evidence suggests a need for additional investigation into the role ethnicity may play in regard to students' experiences with bullying, that alone will not help alleviate the problem. School psychologists are in a unique position in that they hold the capacity to advocate for all students by taking an active role leading the way toward implementing bullying prevention and intervention efforts. Given that research highlights the numerous negative short- and long-term efforts of being involved in bullying, in any capacity, the school psychologist must be informed of the steps necessary to address this pervasive problem. Bullying continues to be a national imperative needing attention. School psychologists are ideally situated in a position that allows them to influence decisions on a school-wide level in order to enhance the quality of student's experiences in school. However, without consideration being given to the role of ethnicity, the potential impact of any practice will likely continue to be hampered. While considering how to best address bullying, ethnic differences must be considered in order to gain a better understanding of what constitutes bullying behavior across subgroups.


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Stephanie Grunewald
Loyola University Chicago
1567 Ridge Ave. – APT 405
Evanston, IL 60201
Telephone: (920) 918-3773