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Gifted and Tormented
Academic Stars Often Bullied -- and More Likely to Suffer Emotionally as a Result

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More than two-thirds of academically talented eighth-graders say they have been bullied at school and nearly one-third harbored violent thoughts as a result, according to a study believed to be the first to examine the prevalence and impact of bullying in a group some experts regard as particularly vulnerable.

The study -- published in the current issue of Gifted Child Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal -- involved 432 students in 11 states, including Maryland, who had been identified by their school systems as gifted. Lead author Jean Sunde Peterson, an associate professor of educational studies at Purdue University, said she sought to explore whether harassing behavior affected such children differently.

"All children are affected adversely by bullying, but gifted children differ from other children in significant ways, and what they experience may be qualitatively different," said Peterson, whose study was conducted with doctoral candidate Karen Ray. "It is important to remember that although cognitively these children are advanced, physically, socially and emotionally they may not be."

In the view of Peterson and some other experts, the personality traits and interests of many gifted children may make them targets of bullying by their classmates. At the same time, she added, gifted children may be more susceptible to the emotional damage that bullying can inflict.

Some studies have found that gifted children, especially those with high verbal aptitude, may be more sensitive than their less-gifted peers and to worry more about their social standing.

Because the Purdue study did not contain a control group and was not designed as a comparative study, it is impossible to determine whether the bullying that gifted children described differs in quality or quantity from that experienced by their peers. Other studies have found that 60 to 90 percent of schoolchildren say they were bullied and 20 percent say they bullied someone else.

"This study is a great start and the tip of the iceberg," said developmental psychologist Susan Limber, an associate professor of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina and an expert on bullying prevention.

Sylvia Rimm, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Case School of Medicine in Cleveland, said Peterson's findings echo what she hears in her practice.

"Regular kids get bullied, too, but gifted kids are bullied based on their school performance, which makes the child's strength into a weakness" and a potential source of shame, said Rimm.

Peterson said that one of her most alarming findings involved the frequency of violent thoughts. By eighth grade approximately 37 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls reported having unspecified violent thoughts in response to being bullied; 11 percent said they had resorted to violence to cope with the problem, often by striking a classmate.

Goad to Violence

The link between bullying and school violence has attracted increasing attention since the 1999 rampage at Colorado's Columbine High School. That year, two shotgun-wielding students, both of whom Peterson said had been identified as gifted and who had been bullied for years, killed 13 people, wounded 24 and then committed suicide. A year later an analysis by officials at the U.S. Secret Service of 37 premeditated school shootings found that bullying, which some of the shooters described "in terms that approached torment," played a major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks.

In the last two months, Columbine-style plots involving students as young as 12 have been disrupted in more than half a dozen American communities, from North Pole, Alaska, to Atco, N.J. Bullying was cited as a motive in some of these incidents, but it is unclear how many of the suspected conspirators would be considered academically precocious.

Jaysen Kettl, who was convicted of conspiracy after his plan to murder 20 classmates, teachers and administrators at Vidor High School in Vidor, Tex., was foiled in 2003, told the Houston Chronicle in an interview last March that classmates began bullying him when he left a gifted program in eighth grade. Kettl, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, was charged as an adult and is serving a four-year prison term.

Often, psychologists say, gifted children who are bullied turn their rage and despair inward. Among them was J. Daniel Scruggs of Meriden, Conn., a slightly built 12-year-old with an IQ of 139.

Scruggs was tormented for more than a year by middle school classmates who shoved him off the bleachers, affixed "Kick Me" signs to his back and made him eat his lunch off the cafeteria floor. Many school officials knew about the abuse and failed to intervene, state investigators found. On Jan. 2, 2002, the boy walked into his bedroom closet and hanged himself.

One of Rimm's clients, a middle school student, told Rimm she worried that if her grades were too good, she would be ostracized.

"Some kids get away with it if they're really good at sports or very pretty," Rimm said. "If kids are teased in the one area they have that's strong, there is this feeling of isolation and anger. Adults need to take it seriously because otherwise these kids go underground."

Peterson conducted detailed interviews with 57 students as part of her study. Some told her their intelligence was used against them; school officials, including teachers, were low on the list of people to whom they turned for help.

"Many students said they assumed responsibility for fixing the problem" Peterson said. "Some felt they had essentially been told by school officials, 'If you're so smart, figure it out yourself.' "

Out of the Loop

Many studies of bullying have found that the problem escalates in the later years of elementary school, is most severe in middle school and tends to dissipate by high school. Peterson's subjects reported that sixth grade was the peak year for bullying.

Rimm said she suspected that bullying might be less a problem for gifted children who are grouped together, as in many Washington area school systems that have magnet academic programs.

Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Public Schools, which offer gifted education programs beginning in kindergarten, said officials there declined to comment other than to say that bullying of gifted students "is not an issue for us."

That is not true elsewhere. Developmental psychologist Richard Olenchak, director of the University of Houston's Urban Talent Research Institute, which works with gifted minority students, said some cultures label gifted children as "overly intellectual"; standing out for being "a brain" at an age when children most want to fit in, he said, may make a gifted student a target of unwanted attention.

Peterson found that being teased about appearance, reported by 24 percent of study participants, bothered students "a lot" in sixth and seventh grade, the same age that being teased about intelligence and grades peaked.

One finding that merits further study, according to Peterson: 16 percent of students in her study said they had bullied someone else. Although fewer students reported being bullied by eighth grade, the number who said they bullied others increased.

To Clemson's Limber, who consults with school systems around the country about bullying prevention, the key questions have to do with the tone set by teachers and administrators.

"Do they mark [gifted] kids as being special or different?" she asked. "Are they looking out for those who may be socially isolated?" ยท

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