Can School Choice Keep Children Safe from Bullying?

Twelve-year-old Mallory Grossman recently ended her own life rather than endure any more bullying from peers at her school. According to her family, the bullying had gone on for months. They’d reported it to school officials who, they believe, did not take it seriously, and the parents are suing the school district they believe neglected the issue.

This girl’s unfortunate death is part of a worrisome uptick in the rate of teen suicides, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report has increased 30 percent for teenage boys in the last 40 years and has doubled for teenage girls. While some studies suggest that bullying in U.S. schools is on the decline, bullying rates are still high—according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), between one-quarter and one-third of students say they have been bullied. Moreover, bullying not only seems to affect suicide rates, but dropout rates as well.

In light of these statistics, we began to wonder whether offering students additional educational options might reduce bullying and its tragic outcomes. Does a system that historically has assigned students to schools based on where they live and not what they need effectively trap some of them in dangerous situations where they cannot escape their tormentors?

Providing an Escape Hatch

We fully recognize the sensitive nature of this topic—and debated writing this article—but ultimately decided that the best voices to answer that question would be those parents who routinely reach out to EdChoice to share their students’ stories. The parents featured in this story have agreed to share their comments publicly to raise awareness about this important issue.

Recently, one mother from Georgia sent EdChoice a heartbreaking letter asking about school choice options in her area. She was seeking to change schools because of the effects of bullying on her daughter, who suffered panic attacks on the way to school and required medication to handle her severe anxiety.

“These kids are tormenting her,” she said, “She has always been a very funny child with a great personality… She is so traumatized that she will not go to the grocery store or any other store with me because she’s scared she will see a child from her class. She begs me every day to put her into another school.”

Another mother from Pennsylvania wrote to EdChoice looking for information on school choice programs because her son faced “relentless bullying” and had recently received “a threat from another student to harm him.”

When the district school proved unable to protect her child, she and her husband made the difficult decision to pull their child from school. “To have the peace of mind that he is safe, we will make sacrifices to pay his tuition,” the mother wrote, though the financial hardship was a significant strain.

Fortunately, Georgia and Pennsylvania have tax-credit scholarship programs that help families like these afford private school tuition and rescue their children from terrible situations.

Voices and Choices

Are parents right to seek refuge in private schools? What does the evidence say about bullying in public versus private schools?

It appears that private schools have more robust anti-bullying programs, have students who are more likely to report bullying and yet fewer reported instances of bullying.

Why do bullying rates appear lower and responsiveness to bullying higher in private schools? We can speculate that when schools are selected by their students, they are more responsive to their needs and to family feedback. We do know for a fact that parents and students who are using the K–12 voucher program in Washington, D.C., believe their private schools are much safer, and parents often list safety as a top reason for choosing a private school.

Obviously, no parent wants to send her children to a school where they feel unsafe, and we are certain public school employees want the best for their students. But at the end of the day, a school system where students are assigned by geographic boundaries simply cannot have all the right answers for every child—and the results can be heartbreaking.

We are not here to pit public schools against private schools against other schooling types. We take a different approach: What might our communities’ schools—whether public, private or otherwise—learn from one another?

Private schools are on average half the size of public schools, potentially making them more attentive to the situations of individual students. Another possible reason private schools might have fewer instances of bullying is that private schools often find it easier than public schools to create a strong school culture centered on common values of members.

This is not to say school culture is lacking in all public schools, but it is easier to build a school culture when parents actively opt in rather than when their children are enrolled by default. As Michael Godsey wrote in The Atlantic, explaining why he—a public school teacher—enrolled his child in a private school, “if the parents are paying tuition at an independent school—one that advertises an alternative approach to education and promotes a ‘love of learning’ as its cornerstone—they are publicly claiming a stake in a specific curriculum and pedagogy.”

Private schools also have more freedom to inculcate values. As the authors of a study finding lower rates of anti-Jewish views among private school graduates than public school graduates noted, “private school teachers can lead meaningful discussions about sensitive topics, whereas public schools are constrained by rigid neutrality and are particularly sensitive to matters of religion.”

Whatever the cause, studies of the effect of school choice programs on the level of political tolerance among students consistently find that participating students display as much and often more tolerance than nonparticipating students. These studies generally measure political tolerance by asking respondents to think of the group they like the least, and then asking them whether they believe members of that group should be allowed to speak freely, march, vote, run for office, etc. School choice students are more likely to extend political tolerance even to groups they dislike.

Although these studies do not directly measure the effect on rates of bullying, it is not hard to imagine that students who are more tolerant of other groups are less likely to bully them. Indeed, a study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that LGBTQ+ students were significantly less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment or physical abuse in private schools than in public schools.

That is why we believe the strongest way school choice can help alleviate bullying lies in expanding access to parents so they can choose schools where their children feel comfortable and accepted—and parents are empowered to speak up when they find their children bullied. When you know you have choice, you are more likely to demand good service from your existing provider.

Voting or Voting with Your Feet?

Of course, there are those who argue that empowering parents to leave a school if it is the wrong fit—for example, if a student is being bullied—undermines a community’s ability to address and resolve the situation by working together democratically. Instead of voting with their feet, they argue, parents should band together and use their collective voices to change the system.

While this is a noble idea, we already know that few families and students actually report bullying. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, school officials are notified in fewer than four in 10 cases of bullying. And even when they are notified, they often appear to lack the ability or the will to address the situation. Last month, the New York Times reported that a bullied 12-year-old attempted to take his own life at the same Bronx district school where a bullied teen recently stabbed one of his tormentors to death. Their reporting uncovered that the school was “place where students felt increasingly unsafe and parents said administrators failed to address their concerns,” and students believed that “they had to fend for themselves.” According to the Times:

One mother said that when she told school officials that students were pulling her daughter’s hair, they suggested she wear her hair in a bun. Another said she took her daughter out of the elementary school in the building after a high school student — Wildlife has a middle and high school — exposed himself to her daughter in the stairwell. Parents requested additional security, and when they were denied, they started patrolling the halls themselves.

The boy who tried to commit suicide at Wildlife said that he told a dean, the school social worker and the principal that he was being tormented, but ultimately, all that did was make the bullying worse.

Instead of hoping that they speak up – or that school officials will take their pleas seriously when they do – why not give them the option to get out? This puts the leverage in their hands and allows them to walk away from a dangerous situation without having to convince their peers that something is wrong—or waiting until it’s too late.

Student bullying and suicide are beyond tragic. We should be doing every single thing in our power to prevent them. Educational choice should be an arrow in every parent’s quiver as they seek to protect their children and see them through to a lifetime of success.

— Kevin Currie-Knight and Jason Bedrick

Kevin Currie-Knight is a teaching assistant professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. Jason Bedrick is director of policy for EdChoice.

A version of this blog post was originally published at EdChoice.

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