In the ongoing national conversation about how to understand and prevent bullying, one question that often comes up among parents is whether bullying is less prevalent in private schools than it is in public schools.
It’s a tough question to answer, especially after the pandemic so thoroughly disrupted education nationwide.
Roughly one in five children ages 12 through 18 report being bullied in U.S. schools, according to data released in 2019 by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, that number likely fell dramatically when schools shifted to virtual learning. As students return to school, bullying experts expect numbers to rise. However, they say that there is no conclusive data showing whether bullying is more prevalent in public schools than in private schools.
Many say it can be hard to generalize which climate is more prone to bullying, in part because private schools vary so widely, offering religious education, boarding options, unique settings and specific educational philosophies.
“The limited research on bullying in public and private schools has mixed findings,” says Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo–SUNY. “Some studies find no differences, and other studies have found more bullying, particularly physical bullying, in public schools.”
How Private Schools Address Bullying
Experts say some factors give private schools an advantage when it comes to curbing the threat of bullying.
“Private schools generally have an advantage over public schools in that they have more choice in whom they enroll and they can exclude or remove students who are disobedient,” says Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on bullying. “Therefore, private schools have the capacity to exert more control over problems like bullying.”
In addition, private schools tend to have lower student-to-teacher ratios, says Myra McGovern, spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools. “That means there are more adults for kids to talk to if they are experiencing problems,” she says.
Sheri Bauman, a professor and bullying expert at the University of Arizona, says parents at some private schools may also be more involved.
“In many cases, they have actively sought a private school that has the best education for their child, and they usually pay tuition,” she says. “Private schools are also more likely to require uniforms, which theoretically removes one characteristic that motivates some bullying — appearance, including clothing.”
‘Bullying Occurs Everywhere’
However, bullying experts stress that it would be wrong to conclude that opting for a private school will protect their children from bullying.
“Bullying is a ubiquitous social problem seen in nearly all schools, public or private,” Cornell says. “In practice, bullying occurs everywhere, and it is a question of whether school authorities recognize the problem and make a concerted effort to respond to it or ignore it.”
Indeed, in extreme cases, bullying can play a role in student shootings and suicide, Cornell notes. “Private schools,” he says, “have no immunity from these outcomes.”
While some schools may cut down on physical bullying, other forms of bullying are certainly prevalent in private schools. “Verbal, social and cyber bullying still exist,” Nickerson says.
In fact, in both private and public schools, cyberbullying was likely the only type of bullying that didn’t substantially decrease when schools went remote. “There are predictions and expectations that bullying and cyberbullying will increase once children return to in-person schooling,” Bauman says.
How Parents Can Help
Parent involvement, and parents modeling respectful and dignified behavior, is always seen as the first line of defense against bullying, experts say.
Nickerson says parents should stay involved with their children, supervising and monitoring their behavior, talking with them about classes, peers, interests and concerns, and encouraging involvement in activities that are healthy.
“Parents should problem-solve how they can deal with difficult interpersonal situations — including how to be an upstander by reporting, intervening and supporting someone being excluded — so they have some of the tools to empower them to make a difference,” she says. “It is also important for parents to know their school’s bullying prevention and intervention policies and practices.”
Bauman says children are often reluctant to tell adults if they are being targeted, but they are more likely to tell parents than teachers. “So, parents should take any report seriously, make sure the child knows it is not their fault, and ask how they would like the parent to help,” she says.
“They should encourage the student to make good friends,” Bauman says. “Kids who have even one close friend are less likely to be targeted. If the parent is going to contact the school, it is important to approach the school in a collaborative manner. The goal is for schools and parents to be allies.”
This is an area where some experts say private school parents can make more of an impact.
“Because parents in private schools are often more engaged in educational activities, they might request that a school establish a committee to consider how they want to reduce bullying,” Bauman says. “Committees can organize parent information sessions, provide input into policies related to bullying and cyberbullying, and do anonymous surveys to get a picture of what is going on in their school. That’s really important, in my opinion.”
She added, “It’s also helpful to have students involved in planning. Their voice is important — and often not included.”
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