VERMONT - Four in five teenaged girls in Vermont have experienced some form of bullying, and four in 10 admit to having done it themselves. About one in four have skipped school - or at least wanted to - because of bullying or harassment from their peers. Typically, this persecution targets some aspect of the girls' appearance, such as their hair, glasses or clothing, rather than characteristics such as race, religion, disability or sexual orientation.
These are among the findings of a first-ever statewide survey called "What Teen Girls Say About Bullying and Harassment." More than 200 girls aged 11 to 17 were queried during the three-month study, which was sponsored by the Girl Scout Council of Vermont and the Vermont Commission on Women. The survey also examined girls' use of text messaging, email and personal Internet sites, and the role of those technologies in bullying. The results, due to be presented to the legislature on March 14, provide an intriguing glimpse into the often secret lives of the state's teenagers.
"We know that girl-on-girl social aggression is vastly different than boy-on-girl harassment, or even boy-on-boy harassment," says Sharon Baade, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of Vermont and a commissioner with the Vermont Commission on Women. "Girls go underground. They do it by text messaging and on the Internet. They can be incredibly hard on each other and do it in ways that adults don't see."
According to the survey, bullying and harassment among girls peak in middle school; 65 percent of eighth-grade girls say they've been the target of some form of social aggression, from name-calling to physical intimidation to sexual groping. By the 12th grade, the number drops to 37 percent.
The trend among girls is reflected in the total teenage population. Official tallies of bullying in public schools found that incidents rose from 558 in 2004-05 - the first year schools were required to report these figures - to 660 last year. Fifty-three schools in Vermont, including some middle schools, reported no incidents of bullying or harassment whatsoever.
However, survey results suggest that this may be because some girls are reluctant to report incidents. About 30 percent of those queried said they thought it was hard to report bullying in their schools or were afraid doing so would exacerbate the problem. And one in four of those who'd been bullied didn't tell anyone, even close friends.
According to Baade, cyberbullying - harassing through email, Instant Messaging and personal websites such as MySpace and Facebook - is another cause for concern. The survey found that, by high school, the vast majority of teen girls have web pages on sites such as MySpace and Facebook. However, the study also showed that many parents are unaware of the extent to which they use these technologies - or how early they start. While 30 percent of eighth-grade girls reported having personal websites, 66 percent of them said their parents had never seen them.
Baade suggests that such unsupervised web activity poses troubling questions for parents, especially in light of another finding. Forty-four percent of 12th-grade girls said they had been approached online by someone they didn't know.
"That's huge!" Baade says. "What I suspect is, this is happening to a lot of girls."
The bullying survey is the second statewide study of girls co-commissioned by the Girl Scouts and the Vermont Commission on Women. Last year's study looked at growing up in Vermont. Next year's topic is yet to be determined.