One in five teens are victims of bullying, and these adolescents are about twice as likely to bring guns and knives to school than peers who aren’t bullied, a U.S. study suggests.
Researchers examined how high school students answered three survey questions: how often they skipped school because they felt unsafe; how often they got in physical fights at school; and how many times they were threatened with a weapon at school.
“High school students who reported being bullied on school property within the past 12 months were not at increased risk for carrying a weapon to school if they answered ‘no’ to all three of these questions,” said senior study author Dr. Andrew Adesman, a researcher at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in Lake Success.
“Importantly, students who said yes to all three of these physical safety/injury questions were at the greatest risk for carrying a weapon to school,” Adesman said by email.
For the study, researchers analyzed survey responses from a nationally representative sample of more than 15,000 students in grades 9 to 12.
Overall, about 20% of participants reported being victims of bullying at least once in the past year, and about 4% said they had brought a weapon to school in the past month, researchers report online November 27 in Pediatrics.
Only 2.5% of the teens who were not bullied brought weapons to school, the study found.
But about 46% of bullying victims who also reported skipping school, getting in fights and getting threatened by somebody else with a weapon said they had brought a weapon of their own to school.
Victims of bullying were more than four times as likely to skip school as students who weren’t bullied. When bullying victims did skip school, they were about three times more likely to bring weapons to school than teens who weren’t bullied.
Bullying victims were more than twice as likely to get in fights at school, and when they did get in fights they were about five times more likely to carry weapons, the study also found.
Teens who were bullied were more than five times more likely to be threatened with weapons, and when this happened they were almost six times more likely to bring guns or knives to school.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how being bullied might influence the odds that students would bring weapons to school.
Another limitation is that researchers relied on teens to truthfully report on their experiences with bullying and weapons, and some youth may have been reluctant to admit they carried weapons, the authors note.
It’s also possible that other factors beyond bullying might have influenced teens’ decisions about carrying weapons to school, said Melissa Holt, author of an accompanying commentary and a researcher at the Boston University School of Education.
“Findings from this study do not directly address motivations for weapon carrying,” Holt said by email.
“They do suggest that bullying victimization alone is not necessarily associated with increased risk of weapon carrying, but rather other individual (e.g. peer aggression experiences) and contextual factors should be taken into account,” Holt added.
Still, those three questions about skipping school, fighting or being threatened might be a useful screening tool for finding kids at risk of carrying weapons, Adesman said.
“The three simple screening questions can help us better identify which students are most likely to carry a weapon to school,” Adesman said. “School personnel, parents and healthcare providers need to be attentive to why some students may be reluctant to attend school and we need to evaluate circumstances whenever a child gets into a fight or is threatened or injured at school.”