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.
- Bullyingnoway.com.au—a website filled with practical anti-bullying strategies for schools, including activities specifically designed for different groups, such as the whole school, individual classrooms, parents and students.
- National Safe Schools Framework (updated in 2011)—the federal government’s vision and guiding principles to help schools develop a whole-school approach to preventing bullying; includes a resource manual featuring an audit tool, a review of the research and literature on bullying, and resources to help schools implement the framework. See www.mceecdya.edu.au/verve/_resources/NSSFramework.pdf.
- Kids Helpline, 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelp.com.au.
- Lifeline, 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au.