Study links school bullying to risky behavior in victims

A new study finds bullied teens in Colorado are at greater risk than their fellow students of binge drinking, using marijuana, fighting and considering suicide.

The Colorado Department of Education released the Healthy Kids Colorado survey last week. The study shows ninth- through 12th-graders bullied in Colorado schools in 2009 were two-and-a-half times more likely to consider suicide than their non-bullied peers, 40 percent more likely to get in a fight, and about 22 percent more likely to binge drink or use marijuana.

Teens without a strong support network to turn to may be more likely to “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol when their confidence is worn down by a bully, District 51 Equity and Minority Student Performance Executive Director Susana Wittrock said. Teens in particular may use marijuana and alcohol in an effort to fit in when they’ve been ostracized by bullies, according to Redlands Middle School Counselor Alanna Bell.

“For some kids, especially in the teen years, your peers are everything,” Bell said. “A lot of times people who have lower social standards who might become involved in drugs or alcohol, they’re not picky about who joins their group.”

Although some students may reach for illegal substances when bullied, they’re not likely to announce that behavior to school officials. But counselors like Mount Garfield Middle School’s Janelle Hart are trained to look for changes in personality among kids, a sign they may be enduring bullying or using marijuana or alcohol or considering suicide, or a combination of those behaviors.

Hart said students being bullied are sometimes hesitant to come forward and may turn to risky behaviors to cope with feeling isolated.

“Sometimes they don’t realize the level of support that there is” from school employees and parents, Hart said.

Bullies and their victims are statistically more likely to commit or contemplate suicide, according to District 51 Prevention Coordinator Cathy Haller. Haller recently attended a suicide-prevention conference and worked with colleagues to create suicide intervention and prevention protocols.

The district doesn’t track links between risky behaviors and bullying, but Haller said she hopes the district’s bullying investigation and recording system will improve soon. Ninety-five incidents of bullying were recorded in the district last year, but those incidents were limited to ones referred by a teacher or student to the principal’s office.

After spring break, Haller plans to propose to a district leadership team that all incidents of bullying in schools, whether handled in the classroom by teachers or at the administrative level, be reported to an administrator so the district can better understand the full magnitude of bullying in local schools.


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