GAO Releases Report on Increase in Student Bullying, Hate Crimes and Violence

The in-depth report breaks down the increase in hostile behaviors among students and how schools and the Education Department are addressing it.
Published: December 7, 2021

During the 2018-19 school year, one in five students ages 12 to 18 — an estimated 5.2 million students — were bullied, according to new findings released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Of those students, nearly a quarter experienced bullying related to identity.

The report, Students’ Experiences with Bullying, Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Victimization in Schools, was released in Nov. 2021 and examines the prevalence and nature of hostile behaviors in K-12 public schools, the presence of K-12 school programs and practices to address hostile behaviors, and how the U.S. Department of Education has addressed complaints related to these issues in school years 2010-2011 through 2019-2020.

To address the first two parts, GAO analyzed two nationally generalizable federal surveys of students and schools. One is a survey of 12- to 18-year-old students for school years 2014-15, 2016-17, and 2018-19, and the other is a survey of schools for school years 2015-16 and 2017-18. To address the third item, it analyzed 10 years of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) case management system data.

In the report, hostile behaviors are classified as bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, hate speech, hate crimes, physical attacks or fights, rape, sexual assault, and victimization. Some additional findings related to hostile behaviors include:

——Article Continues Below——

Get the latest industry news and research delivered directly to your inbox.
  • In school year 2018-19, 1.3 million students were bullied for their race, religion, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation (see Figure 2).
  • One in four students aged 12 to 18 (approximately 5.8 million students in school year 2018-19) saw hate words or symbols written in their schools, including homophobic slurs, and references to lynching or the Holocaust.
  • 7% of students (about 1.6 million in school year 2018-19) were subjected to hate speech related to their race, religion, ethnic background/national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation (Figure 3 shows the student identities that hate-related words most commonly targeted in schools).
  • Hate crimes, which most commonly targeted students because of their race or national origin, and physical attacks with a weapon nearly doubled from the 2015-16 school year to the 2017-18 school year (see Figure 7).
  • The number of hate crimes in schools and the number of schools where at least one hate crime occurred almost doubled from 2015-16 to 2017-18 (see Figure 4).
  • Approximately 1,064 rapes or attempted rapes occurred in 726 schools in school year 2017-18, similar to data from 2015-16.
  • Sexual assaults other than rape increased by 17% during the same time period (see Figure 6).
  • The number of schools reporting at least one sexual assault increased from 2,805 schools to 4,247 schools.
  • Approximately 939 schools reported sexual misconduct from staff against students.

The report also found certain school characteristics or climates were associated with more bullying. For instance, middle school students were more likely to be bullied than high school students, and students in schools with 300 or fewer students were more likely to report being bullied than students in schools with 1,000 or more students. Students who observed the presence or availability of drugs, alcohol or weapons in school also reported being bullied more than students who did not (see Figure 1).

How Are Schools Addressing Hostile Behaviors?

According to, hostile behaviors in K-12 students can have long-term effects not only on students being bullied but also on students who are doing the bullying and students who witness bullying (effects outlined on Page 8 of the report). To curb hostile behaviors and subsequent consequences, the report found nearly every school has programs or practices in place to address hostile behaviors. Schools’ adoption of them increased from school year 2015-16 to 2017-18 (see Figure 9). Approximately 18,000 more schools implemented social-emotional learning and nearly 1,200 more used in-school suspensions. Furthermore, 2,000 more schools used school resource officers (SROs) in school year 2017-2018.

Some schools and district officials have responded to incidents of hate speech or hate crimes by issuing statements condemning the incidents, implementing new teacher and staff training (see Figure 11), conducting listening sessions with students and parents, establishing protocols for addressing hate speech, and creating spaces in schools that celebrate diversity (see Figure 10).

Even with these practices in place, the report found school officials were aware of students being bullied regularly in about 30% of schools and occasionally in about 64% of schools. In school year 2018-19, only 44% of bullied students reported the bullying to a teacher or another adult at school.

The report also breaks down offerings of mental health services, disciplinary actions most commonly available and used, monitoring and security mechanisms, such as anonymous reporting and access control, and tasks most commonly performed by SROs.

How Has the Office for Civil Rights Addressed These Threats?

In regards to how the Education department has addressed these issues, the report claims it has resolved complaints of hostile behaviors quicker in recent years, partly due to more complaints being dismissed and fewer complaints being filed.

The average resolution time dropped and remained below the 180-day target for each protected class since school year 2017-18 (see Figure 17). The declines were the greatest for complaints of alleged violations on the basis of sex. Complaints of hostile behaviors filed with the OCR declined by 9% and 15%, respectively, in school years 2018-19 and 2019-20 (see Figure 21).

During the 2019-20 school year, 81% of resolved complaints were dismissed, most commonly because the OCR did not receive consent to disclose the complainant’s identity to those they filed the complaint against (see Figure 20). Complaints of alleged civil rights violations on the basis of sex were the most frequently dismissed complaint in the 2019-20 school year at 88%, followed by those on the basis of race, class or national origin at 87% and disability status at 76%. In comparison, dismissals account for 49% of resolutions in the 2010-11 school year (see Figure 19).

“Some civil rights experts said they lost confidence in Education’s ability to address civil rights violations in schools—citing Education’s rescission of guidance that clarified civil rights protections, such as those for transgender students,” the report says.

When researchers asked about the increase in dismissals in recent years, OCR officials only commented on the increase in dismissals of complaints related to gender identity, stating that after the department rescinded its May 2016 Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students in Feb. 2017, it subsequently dismissed the majority of these types of complaints.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series