Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions

Australia made a step in the right direction last week with the first-ever National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. Kerri-anne Kennerly took a huge personal interest in the cause and pushed to discuss bullying at length on her show.

I went along with my beautiful, brave and articulate 16-year-old step-daughter, Jazmine, who spoke about her experiences of being bullied, as did another teen, James. Tess Nelson spoke for her son, Dakota.

Kudos must go to Kerri-anne for extending the story to more than 9 minutes, which for breakfast TV is a double segment. The piece raised awareness of the seriousness of bullying and it gave voice to the experiences of the victims of bullying, which I think is very important.

But ever since the segment finished, I have been bursting to take the discussion further. In this post, I want to go beyond the “what, where and why” and discuss the issue that will really make a difference to kids’ lives: how to stop bullying.

What schools can do

We all need a whole-school culture that makes it clear bullying will not be tolerated. Steps that I have seen work in schools include:

  • strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them
  • a zero-tolerance approach to any bullying incident
  • celebrations of difference, such as school multicultural days, gender awareness programs, anti-homophobia initiatives
  • getting the local police youth liaison officer in to discuss the topic with students, which the police are more than happy to do.

Bystanders, take a stand

I think the National Day of Action organisers got it right when they chose to focus this year on encouraging bystanders to do more to stop bullying. Let’s consider the video that recently did the rounds on YouTube of a NSW teen boy throwing another boy to the ground in retaliation for bullying. The teen had been subjected to bullying for years and tried to turn the other cheek—until on this day, in his own words, he “snapped”.

I was disturbed that many in the media portrayed the bullied boy as a hero for fighting back. A Current Affair noted that he had “finally stood up for himself”, as though up until then he’d been somehow morally weak and that the only true way to stand up for yourself is to use physical force.

I empathise with the boy who had been bullied, victimised and assaulted repeatedly before retaliating. But I think if we want to use the word “hero”, we should look at the girl at the end of the video. After the assaults, a friend of the bully comes forward to retaliate against the assault on the bully. The girl walks over and stands between them and assertively tells the bully’s friend to back off.

One of the things that alarmed me in that video was the number of bystanders doing nothing or, worse still, filming the violence. The standard we walk past is the standard we set. That girl was amazing. The fact that she came forward to stop the violence in a nonviolent way is to be celebrated—and encouraged in all schools.

Teachers are of course responsible for doing everything they can to stop bullying—but the reality is that in 85% of cases, bullying takes place when there are no adults around. That’s why it is so important to create a school culture in which bullying is not tolerated and bystanders are encouraged to step up and say “It’s not on!”

Get real about bullying

Even today there are still some people who think bullying is just harmless name calling. Bullying takes numerous serious forms:

  • verbal—name calling, teasing, verbal abuse, humiliation, sarcasm, insults, threats
  • physical—punching, kicking, scratching, tripping, spitting
  • social—ignoring, excluding, alienating, making inappropriate gestures
  • psychological—spreading rumours, glaring, hiding or damaging possessions, malicious texts, email messages or Facebook comments, inappropriate use of camera phones.

All are very damaging.

Know the signs

I interviewed the Police Youth Liaison Officer at Castle Hill in Sydney, Senior Constable Rob Patterson, to find out more about bullying. He told me that his number one piece of advice to kids who are being bullied is: “Tell someone, and if they don’t listen, tell someone else.”

That this advice is even necessary highlights the sad fact that few children who are being bullied actually tell an adult about it. In fact, the father of the boy in the video who retaliated against bullying told A Current Affair: “I didn’t realise how much trouble he was actually in until I’d seen that video . . . you poor little bloke, how many years did you put up with this sort of treatment?”

That means it’s important for teachers and parents to be aware of the signs, such as:

  • refusing to go to school
  • a drop in academic performance
  • changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • bruises, scratches and other injuries
  • changes in personality, e.g., becoming withdrawn or angry.

Call bullying what it really is

Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police and legal system tend not to use the term “bullying”, because it softens people’s perception of offences that may be very serious. The police call bullies’ offences what they really are, using terms such as “assault”, “intimidation” and “online harassment”. If we also begin using the correct terms for these offences, we will begin to acknowledge the serious impacts that bullying has on victims and send a clearer signal to bullies that their actions won’t be tolerated any more.

What parents can do

If you notice signs that your child might be the victim of bullying, raise your concerns sensitively with them. Most important of all, listen and get all the facts, then work with the school to try and resolve the situation.

If you feel that the school isn’t doing enough, go to the police. Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police usually contact the school as a first step and this may spur the school to take further action.

“Don’t forget that it is a criminal offence to make another person scared for their safety and the police can—and do—get involved. Daily,” Senior Constable Patterson told me. However, he stressed that it is important to have evidence, as one of the most common reasons that a school fails to take legal action is that they don’t have proof of the offence. In the absence of evidence, he recommends that parents encourage their children to ask witnesses of the bullying to write down what they saw.

Court action is not the only police solution. They may first seek another way of resolving the bullying—for instance, a talk with the police is often enough of a warning to a bully that they need to stop.

Ultimately, if you’ve tried everything, you’re not satisfied that your child is safe from bullying and they are still miserable—move schools! Many kids thrive with a fresh start.

Set a good example

All the anti-bullying campaigns in the world won’t make a difference if children are surrounded by examples of adult discrimination and bullying. This means it is important to remember to never make negative comments about other people’s race, gender, sexuality, weight, appearance, name, accent, voice and so on.

Bullies need us, too

I also want to emphasise another reason for putting a stop to bullying: the need to improve outcomes for the bullies themselves. There is ample research to show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol and engage in criminal behaviour. They have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30. Bullies need intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression.

Helpful resources

14 thoughts on “Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions

  1. Rachel Hansen says:

    The media is usually far too preoccupied with horrific tales of bullying incidents to stand back and question WHY? and WHAT CAN WE DO? This post is so needed.

    You’ve raised some fantastic points Danni. Particularly about the number of bystanders who did nothing to stop the violence in the You Tube video. One of the aspects that really concerned me was the absolute vitriol directed towards the ‘bully’ on online forums and in the mainstream media. Now, in no way do I condone bullying of any kind, but such anger and threats coming from adults directed at this child is no better! I saw an interview on TV last night with the bully, and felt overwhelming sadness for him. As adults we need to stand up and say “ENOUGH!” – but this needs to be done in a positive and proactive way. By leading through example, and through showing compassion and empathy.

  2. Diane Illingworth says:

    I agree Rachel. It scares me to think how psychologically damaging the media impact along with social network sites have had on the two boys involved.
    As parents and educators we need to do more to build resilience and awareness in our children about bullying and Danni’s article provides us with some very useful advice that needs to be circulated by us all.

  3. Francesca says:

    Danni, your post is so comprehensive, insightful and informative. The existence of ‘bullying’ is so disheartening however I feel empowered by the tips in your post. We can each spot the signs of bullying, take a stand and assist in eradicating this cruel and destructive behaviour. In my work with Enlighten Education I often have conversations with girls regarding the power of their words and the long lasting effects their words can have on others. I believe it is so important to cultivate a culture of acceptance amongst students and provide them with positive models on how to manage differences and disagreements.

  4. Pedestrienne says:

    Wow, wow, wow. I was so happy to read this post. A complete knockout. Throughout the debacle I have been deeply concerned with the rush of adults ready to judge while totally ignoring suggestions by others that we look inside ourselves and really think how we can try to remove bullying culture from our broader society. I have, as an adult, experienced it in bars and in the workplace and on the street. This isn’t just something kids create out of nowhere, it’s something adults also live with and can unwittingly reinforce as okay.

  5. Jaz says:

    When I read this, it makes me feel so glad and happy that people are starting to take action, thankyou so much. Also, as a bully victim myself I think that if everyone took these steps to prevent it and if every parent read this and took action too, there would be no more unhappy kids or bullying. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such an amazing blog for such an important topic, this was very enlightening.

  6. Evelyn Field says:

    You may well attack the media but they are the only ones making the public aware of how bad bullying really is. Since my first book Bully Busting was published in 1999, I have hoped that schools and parents would do more to reduce bullying.
    However, I am constantly saddened at the lack of real action. Thus I still treat very distraught children in my office.
    Thus we all need to teach kids how to block bullies themselves, which is very easy, instead of telling them to rely upon ineffective schools, which Ken Rigby states makes it worse!

    Evelyn M. Field FAPS

  7. Danni Miller says:

    Evelyn this post was in no way an “attack” on the media. In fact, within it I recognise the Kerri-Anne show’s committment to discussing the issue. I do think some of those commenting here are right to question how responsibily elements of the media report on bullying as it is not always handled with the sensitivity vital to ensure all the young parties are protected long-term from the impact their short-term decisions may have on their lives.
    I also think that offering guidelines for schools, parents and all young people (including bystanders) to follow to create more safe school environments is urgent, vital work. We cannot say that simply because schools do not always get it right, we should stop trying. Expecting an ineffective school to sort it out may indeed make matters worse, but surely we need to work to create more EFFECTIVE schools that make things better?
    Whilst I agree that giving those who are most vunerable assertiveness training is an important part of the equation, I do not think we should be putting all the emphasis on expecting those who are being bullied to sort the mess out alone!

  8. Dr Joel Haber says:

    Schools need a comprehensive approach to bullying that starts at the top. Administration needs to send a message to families that bullying is serious and that in our school we take it very seriously. It is the responsibility of the heads of the school to understand that the proper bully solution is to make bullying a priority to protect the emotional and physical safety of our children! The small steps to reduce bullying are not going to work until it is every child and teen’s right to a safe education. Cyberbullying has made the bullying situation so much worse because of the anonymity and ease that allows kids to hurt each other through indirect means without ever seeing the intended target’s pain and hurt. It is time to force the adults and leaders of our education system to step up and be a role model for safety. Anything less than that is sub-par and inexcusable.
    I work with thousands of kids and parents a year to teach youth how to respond to bullying and learn the tools and skills necessary to decrease it so they are not continually targeted. When bullies continue and do not stop, the school, sports coach or camp needs to step in. But we can also teach our kids more: Show kids that they can learn bullyproofing skills to get out of a big problem and they can stay strong, face adversity and feel confident and secure they can do it again next time. Check out the skill sets to build confidence and resilience at http://www.toolkitsforkids.com

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  10. Jacqueline says:

    Thank you for this enlightened article. Bullying needs to STOP NOW. It is unacceptable for people to think that bullying is ok, its not.

    Gratitude Jacquelinexx

  11. Laura Fromoz says:

    My issue in all this press about bullying is simply that – it’s all “press”.
    If one actually questions school bullying policies, one will discover that it’s bully centric.
    Which is to say – the schools have “general school” bullying training workshops for kids, they have “discipline and anger management” programs for bullies, but have NOTHING for the targets or victims.
    Instead of following the rhetoric on the dept of education website, most schools would sooner sweep the fact that they have a bullied child neatly under the rug.
    Or dish out remarks like – it’s been dealt with.
    My favorite when I asked what was available for my son (and two other classmates) who had been beaten and harrassed by a group of older 6th graders, was “they’ve left the school now and gone to high school” so the problem has gone away.
    So I neatly pointed out the my child hadn’t slept in months, and was so traumatised by the event that his self esteem had plumeted, and didnt seem to be able to assert himself to fend off even friendly teasing anymore.
    Surely he should have access to some assertiveness training and counselling for his anxiety … which would hopefully let him finally get a good nights sleep ?
    I was told “he wasn’t a priority” and since he’s a bright boy, he’ll get over it.
    Imagine if a government employer dealt out that response to a female employee who had been harrassed !!
    Yet it was ok for them to do that to a child.

    Apart from the frustration of their response … I became even more frustrated at the general lack of programs for children who have been bullied.
    Now a year on – and I’ve yet to find a holiday workshop to help him develop assertiveness skills which deal with both everyday and bullying situations.
    The only thing on the market seems to be social skills programs for autistic / asperger children.

    Has anyone else found anything of use around Sydney ??

    A string of psychologist therapy sessions seem to be the only other option … but crumbs …
    there must be something out there beside “research study results” telling us that support programs for targets and victims are essential !!

    Because clearly schools dont have the resources or inclination to follow thru with their paper policies.


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  13. Tetra says:

    My school’s idea of a zero-tolerance approach to bullying seems to be zero tolerance- for the victims. It’s not just victim blaming, although that appears to be a core part of their anti-bullying policy. It’s getting called to the Guidance office in the middle of the day so the counselor could lecture me about tolerance. As in, telling me I needed to learn to tolerate what other people did to me, presumably because there are 100 bullies and one of me. My mother- possibly one of the best advocates on this earth- went to speak to them about a boy who’d been one of the worst attackers and was told that it was all okay now. Shortly afterward, said boy began physically attacking me with a large group of boys. Yup, the problem is solved. NOT. They also continually asked me what I was doing to cause the attacks. One teacher repeatedly wanted to know what was wrong with me, and was quite direct about it. Mrs. Jones, I have Asperger’s syndrome and have been horribly abused from all sides for 7 hours a day for a year. My parents are divorced, and I moved here two years ago. Does that answer your question?

    Oh, yeah- I live in NJ, where a child’s bullying is now supposedly a criminal offense. My particular school has showed no signs whatsoever of punishing or handling any of my attackers beyond the occasional half-hour Guidance office meeting. Just to put things in perspective: I have been shoved down a flight of stairs. I have been shoved by various large boys while attempting to run the mile in gym class. There was, of course, no teacher supervision. I have been threatened with both pounding my face into the ground and getting people to draw on it and being killed in one of several richly described ways, the video of which he would send in to a show. Incidentally, these both happened at the same time, issued by the same person, in a room holding 2 different teachers, and nothing was done until the boy making the threats decided I was so annoying HE needed to go to Guidance. Then the teacher noticed he was at her desk. I have been repeatedly told to my face that I am not believed to be human. I have had my things simply picked up and taken from me by a classmate. I have endured every kind of verbal abuse countless times. I am told to shut up the instant it looks like I may open my mouth by nearly the entire class each day and class. I have had the tips of a closed pair of scissors pointed at me like a weapon (although that was more bizarre than threatening.) And the punishment for the attackers is once going to Guidance for half an hour for breaking the law countless times. The punishments for me are uncountable.
    The counselors either lecture you on tolerance or tell you (while you’re in a sobbing heap hiding behind the broken vending machine because gym was too horrible to endure and you knew the counselors would be no help) that you should have no problems because you should just shake everything off and not care what others think of you. If you’re bullied, that is the extent of the “guidance” you will recieve.

    My school is, to me, a hell. I hope others are better.

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