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The Burden of the Bullied

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High school is long past for Kelly, now 38, but she still recalls when her family relocated to a small West Texas town at the beginning of her freshman year. The bullying started from day one with a new rumor circulating about her every Monday morning.

“The choices were to sit at home or get punished,” says Kelly, who asked to be indentified by her first name only for fear of being Crosnoerecognized. “I remember throwing up a lot from the stress. I tried to be out sick every single Monday.”

With bullying reaching a crisis level in U.S. schools, University of Texas at Austin sociologist Robert Crosnoe has completed one of the most comprehensive studies of the long-term effects on teenagers who say they don’t fit in. His new book “Fitting In, Standing Out” (Cambridge University Press, April 2011) provides new and disturbing evidence that socially marginalized youth, including victims of bullying, are less likely to go to college, which can have major implications for their adult lives.

“Because social experiences in high school have such demonstrable effects on academic progress and attending college, the social concerns of teenagers are educational concerns for schools,” says Crosnoe, a professor in the Sociology Department and faculty affiliate in the Population Research Center.

In writing his book, Crosnoe researched national statistics from 132 high schools and spent more than a year inside a high school in Austin with 2,200 students, observing and interviewing teenagers.

He found that feelings of not fitting in led to increased depression, marijuana use and truancy over time, which were associated with lower academic progress by the end of high school. That, in turn, lowered students’ odds of going to college.

Girls were 57 percent and boys 68 percent less likely than their peers of the same race, social class and academic background to attend college if they had feelings of not fitting in, Crosnoe found. Girls who were obese or reported being attracted to the same sex were far more likely to feel they did not fit in and experienced the negative consequences of these feelings.

“Kids who have social problems — often because they are overweight or gay — are at greater risk of missing out on going to college simple because of the social problems they have and how it affects them emotionally,” Crosnoe says, “not because of anything to do with intelligence or academic progress.

“When you feel different because of what is happening to you in high school — real or imagined — that is messing up the identity development process, which is an important part of adolescence.”

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