Skip to main content

Music and Theater Students Are More Likely to Be Bullied

Ryan Murphy got it right in Glee.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

With the new school year underway, many middle- and high-school students have gathered for band practice, while others have started rehearsals for the fall theatrical production. They are, in many ways, lucky kids: A large body of literature suggests such activities provide a variety of mental and emotional benefits.

But a new study reports these long-term advantages come at a substantial short-term cost: The kid who carries a violin case, or is quietly practicing her lines, is more likely to be “accidentally” tripped in the hall, or subjected to nasty gossip.

“Music and theater students face a significantly greater risk than their non-arts peers of reporting being the victims of bullying behavior,” write Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland and Bruce Allen Carter of Florida International University.

Elpus and Carter analyzed data from the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. They noted student reports of ���various forms of in-person physical, verbal, and relational aggression” in the 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 questionnaires, as well as cyberbullying (which was included in the questionnaire starting in 2007).

If you’re studying the classics, the three Bs should not be Bach, Beethoven, and bullying.

The data set featured 26,420 middle- and high-school students, including approximately 7,400 who participated in music or theater. Unfortunately, the data did not break out statistics for the two activities, so we don’t know if the rate of bullying is higher for theater or music students, or if they’re roughly equal.

The researchers report that, after taking into account such factors as race and socioeconomic status, “female music and theater students faced a 41 percent greater risk of being bullied, and male music and theater students faced a 69 percent greater risk of being bullied than their peers.”

Looking specifically at middle school — a period when bullying typically peaks — the researchers found theater and music students had a 39 percent chance of being bullied, compared to a 30 percent chance for their peers who did not participate in such activities.

Not surprisingly, the bullying was more likely to involve physical aggression for boys, and relational aggression for girls — hurtful behavior such as spreading rumors or exclusion from desirable social activities. Female music and theater students had nearly a one-in-three chance of experiencing this sort of victimization, compared to a one-in-four chance for female athletes.

Elpus and Carter argue there are concrete steps teachers can take to respond to bullying, including “(a) making explicit a no-tolerance policy for bullying within the classroom, (b) opening the music classroom for students during times when it is not being used for class, such as lunch, and (c) generally being committed to a culture of safety and respect.”

“Pre-service music teachers should explore what behaviors constitute bullying, how to recognize both overt and covert aggressions, and have specific preparation in strategies for the prevention or elimination of bullying,” they add.

Clearly, something must be done. If you’re studying the classics, the three Bs should not be Bach, Beethoven, and bullying.