Email interview with Dorothy Espelage

Aug. 29, 2016 email from Zebra Fact Check

The fact-checking website PolitiFact recently published a fact check that was heavily reliant on a survey published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The fact check noted that the survey had too many methodological problems to count as solid scientific evidence, yet the story’s conclusion made it appear that each of you, despite its problems, thought the survey useful in supporting the idea that bullying and harassment are on the increase (in particular for three subpopulations) in schools and that the rhetoric of Donald Trump is responsible to some significant degree:

But experts in bullying told us the Southern Poverty Law Center’s survey and their sense of current trends in schools supports Clinton’s point.

I have two questions for each of you.

1) Does the quotation above from PolitiFact’s conclusion accurately reflect your view of the SPLC survey, despite its methodological problems?

2) If yes, is there some supporting reasoning based in evidence that you can share that fails to appear in the PolitiFact fact check? For example, has political rhetoric been shown in the past to affect levels of harassment or bullying in schools?

Please pardon my skepticism. Expertise in a topic is rightly a thorough knowledge of the topic that allows the expert to execute a high quality judgment on matters of fact. If the judgment is not linked directly to that heightened knowledge of the evidence, the resulting expertise is, in effect, a supernatural ability to state the truth without a basis in evidence. If evidence exists to support the judgment summarized in PolitiFact’s conclusion, the fact checkers did a poor job of communicating it.

I’m writing to get at the truth of the matter.


Aug. 29, 2016 response from Dorothy Espelage

From my perspective, the adults that surround children in their schools, homes, and communities can influence their attitudes and behaviors.  For example, when adults in the school are dismissive of sexual harassment or gender -related harassment, students bully more, sexually harass more, and use homophobic language more (Espelage, Polanin, & Low, 2014; Rinehart & Espelage, 2015; attached).  It appears as if folks are trying to make causal claims linking Trump’s commentary to the ways in which children treat one another, and even in the perfect world of longitudinal surveys, this is a challenge or even impossible—too many confounds.  Unfortunately, the NCES trend data on bullying has measurement issues etc., but that data might shed some light on the trends of bullying after the election, but any increase could due to many things, like schools not addressing bullying, schools implementing non-evidence-based practices, etc.  Then you add to the mix of complexity that Clinton’s campaign is running the ad with kids watching him over and over again.


Aug. 29, 2016 follow up from Zebra Fact Check

Can you confirm that I have correctly identified and accessed the works to which you referred?

The Impact of a Middle School Program to Reduce Aggression, Victimization,
and Sexual Violence

A Multilevel Analysis of School Climate, Homophobic Name-Calling, and Sexual Harassment Victimization/Perpetration Among Middle School Youth


Aug. 29, 2016 update to followup from Zebra Fact Check

Update: Found a better match for the 2014 date you gave:

Teacher and Staff Perceptions of School Environment as Predictors of Student Aggression, Victimization, and Willingness to Intervene in Bullying Situations


Aug. 29, 2016 response from Dorothy Espelage


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