Tolerated for far too long, bullying is generally accepted as a part of life in our part of the world. However, research shows that if trivialised and ignored, bullying can spiral out of control and cause serious emotional problems in its victims. In this article Shahrezad Samiuddin outlines what constitutes bullying behaviour and how schools can deal with it effectively.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Too short. A little weak-looking. A tad dark-skinned. Has a weird accent, or is just plain different from the crowd. It seems that when it comes to bullying anything can become a reason to intimidate and threaten a child.

In our part of the world bullying is rarely recognised as a problem and the general attitude to it is that it is part and parcel of going to school and growing up. So are we making a mountain out of a molehill and should we do anything about a form of abuse that is considered a ‘normal’ part of growing up? Or should we just let children deal with it and ‘grow stronger’ from the experience? After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

But before we assume that intervening to stop a bully is a sign of mollycoddling and being overprotective, think about this; if a colleague walked up to you and called you ‘Loser’ or tripped you while you made your way to your seat in the staff room, would it be okay? If it’s not okay for an adult it shouldn’t be okay for a child. And for every (strong) child who moves on tougher from a brush with bullying, there are others who can be scarred by the experience. In fact, research shows that many people who were bullied come away with a higher risk of depression and anxiety. Many struggled with thoughts of suicide (that persisted into adulthood) and were more likely to miss school or drop out.

Sitting at the other end of this lopsided equation are the bullies, who in the long run, don’t have it so good themselves. They grow up with a higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse. They are also more likely to get into fights, damage property, drop out of school and not surprisingly are generally likely to be more abusive towards their friends and family.

In several cases, bullying has killed people. Every year in the US, several children commit suicide because of bullying and cases such as that of 18-year old Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from a bridge after being bullied by his roommate, end up making the national headlines.

So who is a bully?

A bully is anyone who purposely tries to hurt others by making them feel uncomfortable. It is anyone who tries to hurt another by getting physical, for example, by kicking, punching or tripping or by calling him/her names. And then there are the smart bullies who are harder to ‘catch’ because they can work in insidious, less obvious ways. Smart bullies spread nasty rumours about their chosen victims or purposely leave them out of games. All of the above instances qualify as bullying especially if they are persistent. Yes, a true bully tends to inflict his wounds over and over.

If the thought of a bully conjures up images of a big, aggressive boy, it is time to erase that image from your mind because girls are equally likely to be bullies. Girls though are more likely to use tactics such as social ostracism and pressure to intimidate their victims.

The victim: a profile

The victim is usually someone smaller and weaker than the bully. It is likely to be someone who doesn’t have too many allies, and if he does have friends they are not likely to be children who would stand up for him.

Because many victims of bullying already have a low self-image, many incidents of threat and intimidation go unreported, usually because the victim feels that he somehow ‘deserves’ the treatment. Therefore, it is important that in order to protect victims, schools and teachers should get involved in detecting and dealing with the problem.

Tackling the bully

p>For any school-level anti-bullying programme to be successful the first stage is to empower the victim. Children, teacher and staff should be frequently reminded of what constitutes bullying. Victims should be constantly encouraged to tell someone they trust, such as a parent, a teacher or head teacher about it. They should be told that if it is easier, they could write a note to the person as opposed to sharing the problem face-to-face. Victims should also be told to be persistent and if the person they approach does not help them, they should find someone else to confide in. The emphasis should be on sharing their situation.

At a personal level, victims should be told never to let the bully see them upset, because that may be exactly what he is looking for. Victims should also avoid areas where a bully is likely to pick on them, such as a lonely part of the playground or behind large furniture in the classroom. Ideally they should hang out with a crowd, preferably of people who will stand up for him. And if they are feeling strong and safe enough, the victim should speak up and tell the bully to ‘Stop it!’ All these tactics can be reiterated by the head and teachers and emphasised in any pamphlets that are circulated or posters that are put up as part of an anti-bullying campaign.

The second stage of tackling a bullying problem is to empower bystanders. This is an area that has been gaining a lot of attention lately, as children who are being bullied are often too scared to tell an adult. Bystanders should be encouraged to intervene and tell an adult, either in person or by leaving a note. They should be encouraged to round up a group of friends who can talk to the offender and let him know that his actions are not acceptable. Bystanders should also be encouraged to befriend and if possible defend the bullied. Others should also be dissuaded from cheering the bully on or just standing around and watching.

To successfully tackle bullying, a school needs to work together as a team. Schools can place suggestion boxes in each classroom or at a particular location that allows introverted students the opportunity to communicate their concerns.

Schools also need to have a clear set of consequences for bullies; these need to be stated publicly and enforced. Any system for dealing with bullying should clearly define which of the school personnel will get involved if a case comes to light and will also outline how the investigation will be conducted and the information processed. There should also be a set of clear consequences for students who were in the know but failed to report information regarding bullying.

Constant announcements of the anti-bullying policy and training the staff to recognise it is essential for the success of the programme.

Empowering the victim

To empower the victim, schools need to implement a ‘We don’t say you can’t play’ rule. Under this rule, if anyone asks to join a group of children already playing, the answer should always be ‘Yes!’ Children should be supported in using ‘I’ messages to say how they feel (for example, “I don’t like it when you call me ‘loser’.”).

Also discussions that walk students through the problems surrounding bullying should be organised. The moderator could involve the whole group by asking for words, which describe the act of bullying and write them on the board. Then the group could be asked for words which describe how someone being bullied or doing the bullying might feel, and then finally brainstorm for ways they think bullying could be stopped in their school. The discussion could also involve asking children for suggestions about what bystanders who witness bullying, should do.

For such a programme to be successful relevant information, that positively reinforces a respectful, caring environment should be delivered to children and staff wherever possible.

Shahrezad Samiuddin is a freelance writer and a content writer at TRC.

January 2012