Email interview with Jan Urbanski

Aug. 29, 2016 email from Zebra Fact Check (addressed to Sheri Bauman, Dorothy Espelage, and Jan Urbanski):

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 Jan Urbanski:

Thank you for following up on this. The response I sent to PolitiFact  did not support the statement that current trends in schools supports Clinton’s point. Other than the SPLC survey, I have not seen any data to support the claim. As I shared with PolitiFact, according to the most recent National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)  there has been no change in the percentage of students reporting being bullied on school property from 2009-2015. The survey is conducted every two years so there is no data for 2016. According to the most recent Indicators of School Crime and Safety report (2015) the percentage of public schools that reported student bullying occurred at least once a week decreased from 29 percent in 1999–2000 to 16 percent in 2013–14. There is no more current data showing an increase or decrease. According to the recently released National Academies Report Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice estimates of bullying prevalence vary greatly, and there is little consensus on the value and accuracy of existing estimates.Since data on prevalence rates are inconclusive, I suggested checking with the OCR to see if bullying claims for individuals from particular religious and ethnic groups has increased.

Additionally, although current events certainly can have an impact in a school environment, there are many factors that could influence the rate of bullying in a school. So even when trend data for this year is available, to state any change was caused by political rhetoric is oversimplifying a complex issue.

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