Recess Blog

Bias-Based Bullying & Election 2016

By Sarah Schriber, coalition director, Prevent School Violence Illinois; and Stacey Horn, PhD, professor of educational psychology
January 12, 2017

In the first month after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented 1,094 incidents of anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-LGB/T bullying and harassment across the country. Of the incidents reported, more than one third (399) of them occurred in K-12 settings and colleges, including schools in Illinois. Teachers reported an increase of these behaviors towards students whose racial, gender, religious, and other identities have been the verbal targets of candidates. Reports of these incidents similarly reveal that it was the brazen and derogatory language people used while engaged in the acts that communicated intolerant and hateful sentiments about who people were or who they perceived them to be.

Teachers and counselors from elementary and high schools in Illinois reported the following:

-On the bus, students called immigrant students “terrorist” or saying “Pack your bags!” or “Go back to where you came from.”
-A Jewish student reported comments made to her such as “We’ll burn you.”
-Multi-racial children told Hispanic children they were going back to Mexico and their parents were first.
-Boys fought in the bathroom after they found out who voted for Trump in the mock election at school.
-A lesbian student’s mother was telling her that life as we knew it was over.

The SPLC report states that this “ugliness is new,” but the incidents of harassment and bullying collected by the SPLC are not new, nor are they the direct result of the 2016 election.  Prejudice, bias, and hate, both outwardly crude or silently insidious, have existed from the beginnings of our American history, long before there were presidents and elections. What the SPLC and others have captured are sentiments that have been (re)stoked and (re)emboldened by the message communicated repeatedly over the long election cycle: it is okay to speak one’s biases about other people directly, explicitly, publicly, and without consequence.  What’s “new” is a resurgence of brazen language being used without apology.  As they say, history repeats itself.

Protestors wave an American flag outside the UIC Pavilion before Donald Trump's scheduled rally in March 2016.

What We Know About Bias-Related Bullying and Harassment in Schools

Bullying and harassment are frequently linked to issues of difference, stigma, prejudice, and bias. In some of the work we have done in Illinois, we have found that young people who experience bullying related to bias against race, immigration status, religion, sexuality, or gender expression, report more negative outcomes (e.g., depression, anxiety, school attendance, substance use) than their peers who experience more generalized forms of bullying. Furthermore, we have found that these outcomes are compounded for young people who experience multiple forms of bias-motivated bullying. Because discussing issues such as race, sexuality, or immigration in schools is often perceived as controversial (in SPLC’s report, teachers expressed that they were unsure whether they were even allowed to talk about these issues), related biases often go unaddressed. The lack of focus on bias in bullying prevention programs, policies, and practices exacerbates the harm related to these forms of bullying and harassment.


If bias-related bullying and harassment in schools are behaviors that are symptomatic of a tolerance for ignorance, prejudice, and aggression, what is the remedy?

The historical moment in which we find ourselves has created conditions that we must take advantage of to continue to push for schools and communities that support healthy peer conflict to, in turn, support the healthy development of strong and diverse identities among youth.  We must envision schools that are safe and supportive for all people, and more importantly, schools in which diversity of all kinds is acknowledged and honored. We, and many other researchers and practitioners who have long studied the impact of bias on bullying and school climate, have, for years, been partnering with administrators, teachers, caregivers, and students to craft solutions. Below are three of the ways our work has shown to positively transform school climate and reduce bullying:

  1. Learn and teach about the distinctions between peer conflict and bullying.

In a recent pilot project, we found that discussions with adults and students about how to distinguish bullying from peer conflict correlated with significant reductions in bullying. It appears that a shared knowledge of the definition of bullying may have increased rates of interventions (e.g., stepping in, saying something) and feelings of confidence.

  1. To address bias-based bullying effectively, address bias.

In our work, we have found that efforts to reduce bias-related bullying require something different than to reduce more generalized forms of bullying. Schools that take on such bullying should assess their pre-existing anti-bias work, depth of commitment to anti-bias work, and comfort levels with talking about these challenging issues openly and constructively. A school ready to meet the challenge may choose to take the following steps:

  • Seek assistance from people with expertise and experience in anti-bias work.
  • Work to unpack adult’s biases and the ways that those impact their behavior toward students, colleagues, and caregivers.
  • Provide a regularly-occurring program of training, technical assistance, and coaching that addresses bias.
  • Allow adequate time for anti-bias work. Recognizing that discussions about diversity and inclusion can include fear, anxiety, and anger, the added time can also further strengthen trusting relationships.
  1. Consider ways to strengthen moral and democratic education.

Humankind is inherently diverse. To discover oneself as an individual, Piaget ([1939] 1965) argued that we each need to consider ourselves in comparison to others, an exercise that leads to opposition, discussion, and mutual control. Young people’s peer groups provide them with the conflict, resistance, and support necessary for them to begin to understand who they are, what they want to be, and how they fit into the larger social world (McAdams, 1993; Pugh & Hart, 1999). Thus, there is a component of peer conflict that is developmentally necessary and appropriate when it occurs between individuals of equal status and within a supportive environment. It is often the case, however, that young people’s peer interactions are fraught with power imbalances in that certain types of identity expressions afford some individuals more power and privilege within the peer system and others less. When conflict is bullying, rather than being developmentally appropriate or healthy, it serves to perpetuate a system that is unfair and often harmful.

In this context, our aim in providing young people with a moral and democratic education is to help them coordinate their understanding of their social system (and the norms and values associated with it) and its diversity with their understanding of moral principles such as fairness, individual rights, and human welfare. As educators and caregivers, we should strive to ensure that schools are places in which healthy conflict, resistance, and opposition are fostered and that we support students in negotiating the personal, social, and moral dimensions of their interactions with their peers. Finally, we should encourage young people to interact with a diversity of people within their schools and communities, as well as acknowledge that simple exposure to diverse groups is not enough (Allport, 1954). Following are two ways to support moral and democratic education:

  • Ask students to analyze social systems and social practices that unfairly advantage one group or type of person over another. For example, having students investigate segregation and affirmative action will push them to think about and try to make sense of access, privilege, and individual merit.
  • Create a school climate in which multiple identity expressions and a diversity of views and opinions are encouraged, valued, and supported.  Schools that value excellence in multiple domains (arts, sciences, athletics, leadership) create a climate in which multiple identity expressions are valued and supported. In turn, such a climate reduces the likelihood that certain identity expressions with be privileged over others and creates a culture where bias-based bullying cannot thrive.

These solutions and others have shown tremendous successes, which inspire us to push  forward with our work.  For more information or help with finding solutions for your school community, contact Sarah Schriber at or Stacey Horn at

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