A parent stands outside of Bangor High School on March 27, 2019, texting her child inside the school, which was locked down due to a social media threat. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

While Maine kids are generally bringing guns to school less frequently than in the past, a new study has found that high school boys in the Pine Tree State were significantly more likely to do so if they were bullied based on their gender or sexual orientation.

Based on a 2015 survey that collected answers from more than 3,500 Maine high school boys, researchers found that those boys were three times more likely to carry a firearm to school at least once in the previous year if they had received negative comments or been attacked based on one of two factors: their sexual orientation or how feminine they seemed.

While previous research has shown that bullied adolescents are more likely to bring weapons to school, the study from the University of Toronto aimed to identify specific types of bullying associated with that behavior, according to its authors. By doing so, they hoped to show how professionals and policymakers can decrease the likelihood of gun violence and improve relationships among kids.

“These are concerning results and continue to show the negative impact of bullying victimization among young people,” said lead author Kyle T. Ganson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a former Maine resident. “Both gender- and sexual orientation-based bullying are common among adolescent boys, which we found may increase the likelihood of high-risk behaviors.”

He added, “It seems that gun carrying may be a means of self-protection and a method to display toughness and masculinity among boys who have experienced these forms of bullying.”

The research — published online this week in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal — relied on answers from the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which is the statewide version of a national survey given to students every two years that asks them a range of questions about their health and safety.

In general, those surveys have shown modest declines between 2011 and 2017 — the most recent year for which data is available — in the portions of students in Maine and across the country who have reported bringing guns to school.

The University of Toronto study found that 3.3 percent of the high school boys surveyed in 2015 reported carrying a gun to school at least once in the previous year. They also found that 7 percent reported bullying based on their sexual orientation and nearly 10 percent reported bullying based on their gender.

While the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey also surveys middle and elementary school students, the researchers focused on high school boys because of previous research showing they’re more likely to carry handguns.

They noted that the majority of U.S. school shootings have occurred in high schools over the last 19 years and pointed to federal data showing that firearms were the leading cause of injury-related deaths for kids aged 10 to 19 in 2017, including 1,793 homicides, 1,295 suicides and 69 unintentional deaths

The authors pointed to some limitations of the study, including that the Maine survey did not indicate whether students were allowed to bring the gun to school — perhaps for riflery practice — or left it outside the school, such as in a car. The respondents were also predominantly white and, thus, not representative of the whole U.S.

“Despite these limitations, to our knowledge, this is the first study to use these measures. Ultimately, this is a strength of the analysis,” they wrote. “This further emphasizes the need for strengthening bullying prevention efforts, expanding positive youth development programming, and restricting gun access in order to reduce gun carrying and potential gun violence.”