Are Boys Bigger Bullies — Or Just Punished More?

A white male student in Kansas shouted a racial epithet and shoved and punched a Black female student. Two Iowa lawsuits accuse school districts of failing to protect their children from harassment. A Nevada community protests the expulsion of a Black student who was attacked by her classmates.

All these recent events give details to data compiled by the federal government on discipline and harassment in U.S. public schools. In November, the U.S. Department of Education released figures on student discipline during the 2020-21 school year — when most districts were implementing some mixture of hybrid and in-person classes.

The data reveals some stark, though perhaps unsurprising, inequities in how students of different genders and racial groups are treated throughout their time in public schools. It shines a particularly bright spotlight on how Black children face an outsized share of discipline that removes them from school. The report also includes numbers showing that boys make up a majority of children disciplined for bullying.

Boys and Bullying

The report sheds some light on how many students have been the target of bullying, why they’re targeted and who is punished for the harassment.

While boys and girls each make up about half of K-12 public school students, boys appear to be doing a majority of the bullying — at least based on who gets reprimanded. Boys were 78 percent of students disciplined for bullying on the basis of sex, 75 percent of students disciplined for bullying on the basis of race, and 77 percent of students disciplined for bullying on the basis of disability.

Boys were more likely to report being bullied based on race, accounting 60 percent of reports. Black and mixed-race students reported race-based bullying at a rate 2.5 times higher than their enrollment rates of 15 percent and 4 percent respectively.

White students made up a disproportionate amount of those disciplined for race-based harassment, accounting for 64 percent of students disciplined respective to their 46 percent of total K-12 student enrollment.

The data aligns with what researchers in the past have found: that boys generally tend to do more bullying, though boys and girls say they are targeted by bullies at about the same rate. A bullying study of more than 1,000 elementary students in Portugal, published in October 2022’s issue of the International Journal of Educational Psychology, found that it was rare for students to solely be the aggressors. Rather, a plurality of about 41 percent of children involved in bullying were “aggressive victims,” the targets of harassment at times and bullies to their classmates at others.

The answer to why boys are doing a disproportionate rate of bullying and harassment among students is as complicated as the factors that make up masculinity itself. In one study based on data from the Youth Voice Project, which surveyed roughly 13,200 K-12 students, boys described being bullied for behavior perceived as being out of line with masculinity and threats of violence as commonplace. Those same pressures demand that boys accept harassment as a normal part of their social dynamics.

“If boys accepted their status as a victim, they are admitting their vulnerability and defeat, thereby calling into question their masculinity,” researchers write. “However, if boys shrugged off their experiences as just something that ‘boys do,’ the victims were able to save face and once again affirm their masculinity.”

More Inequity Evidence

EdSurge has written before about how data shows racial disparities in discipline. For example, researchers who took a detailed look at discipline data from one California school district pinpointed a group that represented just 5 percent of teachers as responsible for doubling the rate of office discipline referrals issued to Black students compared to their white peers.

This disparity starts early, and there’s a gender element to it, too.

Boys generally were more likely than girls to be suspended or expelled from public preschools, according to the federal report. While it doesn’t provide information on why students were removed, it does show that boys accounted for more than 80 percent of both suspensions and expulsions for preschool children despite making up slightly more than half of students.

Although Black boys made up only 9 percent of preschool enrollment in 2020-21, they accounted for 23 percent of preschoolers who were suspended at least once and 20 percent of expulsions.

White boys also saw outsized preschool removals. Compared to their 24 percent of preschool enrollment, they represented 43 percent of suspended and 47 percent of expelled preschool children.

That trend continued into K-12 schools, where Black boys made up 8 percent of enrollment but 15 percent of students who received at least one in-school suspension, 18 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension, and 18 percent of students who were expelled. The expulsion rate is actually an improvement over the nearly 26 percent total in 2017-18, when Black boys made up 7.7 percent of K-12 enrollment.

When it comes to how the decision to remove a child from class or the school is made, Black families say that there’s little in the way of conversation with school administrators. This raises questions about whether high discipline rates for boys, and for Black students, actually reflect bad behavior.

In a 2022 study on Black parents’ perception of school discipline involving their children, researchers found that the events leading up to suspension or expulsion left parents feeling confused and asking for more information on what happened — often without enough explanation from schools. Parents felt that other interventions were skipped in favor of immediately removing their children from the classroom or the school, even when they asked for more mental health support on their child’s behalf.

Researchers also found that parents who were well-aware of their child’s behavioral issues wanted help from school administrators but felt unheard. In an extreme case, one mother said that her child set fire to their house. She then described in a later part of the report that school officials ignored her calls to talk about her child’s school suspension following the loss of the family’s home.

“You gotta’ realize, like when I was in the shelter and I had the fire and I was homeless and they kept suspending them, and I don’t even got nowhere for them to go while I’m at work, you know what I’m saying?” she told researchers. “Where you going to go while I’m at work and you supposed to be at school?”

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