Music and theater students are bullied more than other students

Now we need to find out why and what to do about it

Ken Elpus
Ken Elpus
Aug 11, 2016 · 3 min read

A new national arts education study has shown that American students in middle and high school music and theater programs are bullied more often than non-arts students. It’s a troubling finding and parents, teachers, school counselors, and school administrators should take note.

The study, which I coauthored with my collaborator Bruce Carter from Florida International University, is based on responses from 26,420 American middle and high school students, about 7,400 of whom were in music or theater.

Our results surprised us: Performing arts students in middle and high school had a 34% chance of being bullied (more than 1 in 3) while non-arts students had only a 25% chance (1 in 4).

Bullying peaks in middle school. Looking at middle schoolers alone, we found that the arts students had a 39% chance of being bullied (nearly 2 in 5), compared to only a 30% chance (less than 1 in 3) for middle school non-arts students.

Certain kinds of bullying follow predictable gender patterns. Female students are more likely to bully and be bullied by so-called social or relational aggression, which is often indirect and involves things like social exclusion and rumor spreading. Female music and theater students in middle school had a 33% chance of suffering from social or relational aggression (1 in 3), while their non-arts peers had only a 23% chance (less than 1 in 4).

Male students, on the other hand, are more likely to be involved in overt physical aggression, and male middle school music and theater students had a 40% chance of suffering physical aggression, compared to a 30% chance for their non-arts peers.

By now, stories about the positive impact of school music and arts education on children have become common in the news. Researchers, too, have found a growing body of credible evidence to support the notion that music and the arts are good for kids. But the results of this new study, and news reports of arts students who have suffered extreme bullying, suggest there’s something more complex going on than we might assume at first glance.

If we believe that arts education is good for kids (as Bruce and I and many others do), then it’s not because arts students are somehow protected from bullying at school. In fact, the benefits that come from studying music and the arts somehow overcome the fact that music and theater students are bullied more. Researchers don’t yet know why arts kids are bullied more, or why, despite a greater risk of being bullied, they still tend to fare better than average on traditional markers of positive youth development.

Parents, teachers, school counselors, and school administrators need to know that the students in their arts classes are more likely than others to face bullying. Many schools have adopted schoolwide programs and measures designed to reduce the overall prevalence of bullying. The most promising of these programs recognize that bullying is not universally experienced by all students and different students face different risks of either becoming bullies or being bullied. These successful bullying prevention programs target the groups of students most at-risk — likely victims and likely bullies. Our research suggests that arts educators should help to ensure that targeted bullying reduction efforts include the arts students as potential bullying victims.

Arts educators would serve their students well by seeking professional development in bullying reduction or prevention. Music and theater teachers often become important mentors in the lives of the adolescents they teach, and these teachers can and should work to help all of their students avoid becoming bullies and overcome bullying victimization.

Interestingly, it is also possible that arts students are just more willing to accurately report their bullying victimization when asked about it. In this scenario, perhaps increased trust in adults (stemming from their positive mentoring relationships with arts educators) leads to greater reporting accuracy. We don’t know if this possibility helps explain our results, but it’s a question worth asking in future research.

The full study, “Bullying victimization among music ensemble and theatre students in the United States,” is currently published online ahead of print in the Journal of Research in Music Education.

Ken Elpus

Written by

Ken Elpus

Associate Professor of Choral Music Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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