AUSTIN, Texas — Heated political discourse can lead to an increase of bullying in middle and high schools, according to a new study released this week.

  • Study examines the link between politics and bullying
  • Looked at the run-up to California voter referendum to ban gay marriage
  • Study showed an increase of bullying

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University, and Columbia University found that debate over policies involving marginalized groups can lead bullies to target those who people who identify being part of those groups.

“We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do,” Stephen Russell, senior author of the paper and chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin said in a news release.

Researchers looked at the run-up to a California voter referendum to ban gay marriage. Results were based on a survey of nearly 5 million middle and high school students in California from 2001-2015.

According the study, the rate of homophobic bullying rose from 7.6 percent of students reporting they experienced bullying in the 2001-2002 school year to 10.8 percent in the 2008-2009 school year when the vote took place. After peaking in the 2008-2009 school year, bullying declined when the public debate on the issue subsided.

This report’s release comes during the final stretch of Texas’s 86th legislative session, which is not going on without heated debate over LGBTQ rights. One of this year’s most controversial proposed laws is over religious liberties, nicknamed the “Save Chick-Fil-A” bill. The measure would ban governments from penalizing an individual or business for membership in or support of religious groups. Opponents argue the bill's broad language could breed discrimination, and some have dubbed it “Bathroom Bill 2.0.”

Ryn Gonzales is the operations and program director for Out Youth, a group  that serves young LGTBQ Texans. Gonzales said about 100 young people stop by the group’s drop-in center every week to participate in programming.  Gonzales said the youth are well-aware of the discussions at the legislature.

“The bathroom bill in the last legislative session is a great example. It passed out of committee and the general population I think thought that it passed altogether and it was now the law of the land. We had kids experiencing discrimination in school because of it,” Gonzales said.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, ​was the largest one examining the link between politics and bullying.

“Our youth are quite well-educated on these issues and what short-term wins might mean long-term for either side. They hope to see a day where they can go anywhere that they’re little hearts desire and know that they’ll be treated with dignity and respect,” Gonzales said.