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Overcoming Perceived Differences to Prevent Bullying

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Longer ago than I like to admit, I was a Puerto Rican middle school student. I remember witnessing fellow Hispanic or Latino kids endure name calling and rumor spreading nearly every day over many years. I also recall hearing about other kids being beaten up or getting physically hurt because of bullying. Personally, I experienced bullying through social isolation — hearing after the fact from my  peers about how much fun they all had at that awesome birthday party, quinceañero (Sweet 15th), movie or beach outing to which I was not invited.

Why were my friends and I targeted? Was it because we were Hispanic? Not at all. We were all Puerto Rican kids, growing up and attending school in Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory), and being bullied by kids of our same ethnicity.

But we were seen as different. Different in many diverse ways. One girl was bullied because she was overweight, another because of her deep-rooted faith and beliefs. A boy was targeted because Spanish was his second language. A couple of us were bullied because we always got good grades

Bullying is a complex and widespread problem in the United States. In 2013 - PDF, 20% of high school students reported being bullied on school property and an estimated 15% reported they were bullied electronically in the previous 12 months. Bullying can have short and long-term physical, mental, academic, and behavioral consequences for both the child who bullies and the child who is bullied.

While all children are at risk, specific groups are at higher risk of being bullied because of characteristics that can make them stand out. These groups include children of different racial, ethnic, or national origins. Nonetheless, kids from the same race, ethnicity or national origin can also bully each other.

We must always consider the context in which bullying occurs. Hispanic children, or those from any specific race, ethnicity, or national origin, are not inherently more likely to be bullied. But they can be targeted if their race, ethnicity, or national origin makes them appear different than the majority or the perceived status quo.

In today’s U.S. schools, diversity is more the norm than the exception. When this fact is accepted and respected, more kids from all backgrounds will learn safely with less risk of bullying.

Schools and communities can help protect them and all children who are perceived as different from the majority or the “norm.” Most importantly, they can create environments that respect diversity.

StopBullying.gov has information on steps that can be taken to prevent and address bullying of children that are frequently perceived as different, such as those belonging to a different race, ethnicity or national origin than the majority of students. And because more than 38.4 million U.S. residents report speaking Spanish at home , all StopBullying.gov content — including this blog — is available in Spanish at https://Espanol.StopBullying.gov.

Melissa C. Mercado-Crespo, PhD, MSc, MA is a Behavioral Scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. She works on bullying, youth violence, and suicide prevention research, with an emphasis on communities, families, and racial/ethnic minority groups.