Prevalence of Bullying amongst Vulnerable Populations

October 2013

It is well understood that bullying, for some youth, is a daily experience. Take, for instance, the story of Will. Will attended the same school since first grade. Like many students, Will had several close friends and fit in. However, during his fifth grade year his friends and classmates began calling him vulgar names. These same students tripped him in the hallway, knocked his books from his hands, and even threatened physical harm. Eventually the threats became reality when Will was physically assaulted at a school football game. What was the catalyst for the rapid and vicious turn of events? Will revealed he was gay in the fifth grade (Gray, 2013). This news story illustrates a growing concern in schools—bullying amongst vulnerable populations. Populations with higher vulnerability include LGBT Youth (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) as well as youth with special needs.

Populations with higher vulnerability include LGBT Youth (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) as well as youth with special needs.

LGBT Youth

LGBT youth are at an elevated risk of bullying, both in person and through cyberbullying. Recent reports indicate approximately 82% of LGBT youth had problems in the previous year with bullying due to sexual orientation. 64% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 44% felt unsafe because of their gender identification (LGBT Bullying, 2013).

While cyberbullying is on the rise amongst all populations, this may be more prevalent for LGBT youth. The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently released results from a national-level survey of 5,680 students concerning online bullying of LGBT students. The results indicate that LGBT youth spend more time online than non-LGBT youth. During this increased period of internet usage, LGBT youth are five times more likely to search for information relating to sexuality, civic engagement (e.g., ways to be involved with a cause), and help groups. Furthermore, LGBT youth are more likely to be bullied online than non-LGBT youth (42% vs. 15%). LGBT youth also report higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem following bullying experiences both in person and online (GLSEN, CiPHR, & CCRC, 2013).

Youth with Special Needs

Although LGBT youth experience higher levels of bullying, other populations are also vulnerable. Youth with special needs (e.g., physical or mental health disabilities) are considered to have heightened levels of vulnerability to bullying. Recall that bullying requires one to exert unwanted, aggressive behavior over another. This behavior requires a real or perceived imbalance of power. Youths that battle physical, developmental, intellectual, emotional, and sensory disabilities are at an elevated risk to have their disabilities leveraged in an imbalance of power.

For instance, research has found that children with autism spectrum disorder are at a higher risk for bullying (Twyman et al., 2010). Children with medical conditions that affect their appearance (e.g., spina bifida, cerebral palsy) or suffer from partial paralysis are also more likely to be bullied (Dawkins, 1996; Yude, Goodman, & McConachie; 1998). Children with a stutter are also more likely to be bullied. In fact, Hugh-Jones and Smith (1999) found that 83% of adults that stuttered as children reported being teased and bullied. Lastly, youth with learning disabilities are at an elevated risk of being bullied (Martlew & Hodson, 1991; Mishna, 2003; Nabuzoka & Smith, 1993; Thompson, Whitney, & Smith, 1994; Twyman et al., 2010). Some research also suggests that students receiving special education are more likely to be bullied by staff and adults at school (Hartley, Bauman, Nixon, & Davis, 2014). They are also likely to suffer more severe psychological and emotional impacts from bullying incidents (Hartley et al., 2014).

What can Schools do?

Schools should be aware of the increased risk of bullying among vulnerable student populations and engage in effective prevention strategies (see Ten Cost Effective Strategies for Bullying Prevention). These steps may be tailored to address the aforementioned vulnerable populations.

Schools must develop clear policies against bullying. It should be readily stated that bullying that targets special populations is against school policy (Harris & GLSEN, 2005). Schools should also make an effort to create a safe and welcoming climate for all students. This includes the inclusion of clubs and groups designed to welcome LGBT and special needs youth. According to the Equal Access Act, these groups are permitted if schools have other clubs or groups on campus. The development of clubs illustrates high levels of acceptance and creates an environment for students to feel safe and secure.

It should be readily stated that bullying that targets special populations is against school policy.


Dawkins, J. L. (1996). Bullying, physical disability and the pediatric patient. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 38, 603-612.

GLSEN, CiPHR, & CCRC (2013). Out online: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth on the Internet. New York: GLSEN.

Gray, K. (2013, May 23). Bullying of gay boy led parents to sue district. Retrieved October 11, 2013, from The Columbus Dispatch:

Harris Interactive & GLSEN. (2005). From teasing to torment: School climate in America, a survey of students and teachers. New York: GLSEN.

Hartley, M., Bauman, S., Nixon, C.L., & Davis, S. (2014). Comparative study of bullying victimization among students in general and special education. Exceptional Children, 81(2), 176-193.

Hugh-Jones, S. & Smith, P. K. (1999). Self-reports of short and long term effects of bullying on children who stammer. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 141-158.

LGBT Bullying Statistics. (2013). Retrieved from:

Martlew, M., & Hodson, J. (1991). Children with mild learning difficulties in an integrated and in a special school: comparisons of behaviour, teasing and teachers’ attitudes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 355-372.

Mishna, F. (2003). Learning disabilities and bullying: Double jeopardy. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 1-15.

Nabuzoka, D. & Smith, P. K. (1993). Sociometric status and social behaviour of children with and without learning difficulties. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 1435-1448.

Twyman, K. A., Saylor, C. F., Saia, D., Macias, M. M., Taylor, L. A., & Spratt, E. (2010). Bullying and ostracism experiences in children with special health care needs. Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics, 31, 1-8.

Yude, C., Goodman, R., & McConachie, H. (1998). Peer problems of children with hemiplegia in mainstream primary schools. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 533-541.