Grabbing the bully by the horns: Violence in schools

By Joel Pablo Salud / Special to the BusinessMirror

Posted at Sep 12 2009 12:26 AM | Updated as of Sep 12 2009 08:26 AM

Violence between children, particularly bullying in schools, is as real as the bruises and cuts they bear on both their young bodies and psyches. Bullying, according to a training lecture drafted by the US Department of Education (“Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying”), is the “intentional and generally unprovoked attempts by one or more individuals to inflict physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more victims.

There must be an imbalance of physical or psychological power, with the bully actually being stronger or perceived to be stronger than the victim. The bullying may be direct, with face-to-face physical or verbal confrontations, or indirect, with less visible actions such as spreading rumors or social exclusion. Although a single attack on a victim if severe enough can be accurately described as bullying, the term more often refers to a series of negative actions that occur frequently over time.”

After all the efforts to curb violence against children, bullying is the one thorn on the side of education that hardly gets noticed by the authorities. Since those involved are children, society seems to find it rather a waste of time and public funds to address.

One reason is that bullying is often looked upon as a rite of passage among the young which the weak must undergo, a “childish” habit no more important to adults than petty thievery or a prank. Worse, it has become so commonplace in the lives of most children that it has been unwittingly tolerated by both children and adults alike.

Danielle’s story

In an interview with the BusinessMirror, Danielle (not her real name), now a third-year college student, says that high school was probably “the worst years of her life.” Being darker than the rest of the fair-skinned girls in class, she found herself ridiculed daily by this particular group of young boys and girls her age who were whiter. Her father said she would at times arrive home in tears, locking herself in her room for hours. In one of their conversations, she told of a grim tale of isolation and verbal harassment no young person should undergo during his or her formative years. Danielle had very few friends, almost nil, and chose to spend her break time alone with a book in an empty classroom or an obscure part of the school. She took them all in stride—the consistent verbal abuse and the indifference—for the better part of her high-school years by focusing on her studies. This offered Danielle the chance to be the strongest candidate for high-school valedictorian. She was an exception, however, in cases of this kind. Experts believe victims of bullying have a higher risk of performing poorly in school, develop learning disabilities, eventually becoming violent themselves.

The father raised the bullying with the school principal and Danielle’s homeroom teacher. The school, which passes itself off as a Montessori-supervised institution, promised to look into it. Nothing, however, transpired; the psychological and emotional aggravation continued. Only did Danielle decide to turn things around when her younger brother was bullied by the same group. When the group insulted Danielle again, she deliberately picked a fight. Sadly, the incident cost Danielle the one chance at being valedictorian. To make matters worse, she was forced by the administration to face the parents and older siblings of the group without alerting Danielle’s family. As for Danielle, all she could say, thereafter, to her father was, “It felt good to fight back, Papa. I did not apologize for what I did.” Not every victim of bullying, however, is as tough.

Unsafe schools

Violence begets violence, and this is no less true than in cases of hostility between children. According to Plan Philippines country director Michael Diamond, “Bullying is a common behavior in schools across the world based on researches conducted. In the Philippines, bullying affects a large number of children in both public and private schools.”

As part of a 2008 study, Plan Philippines conducted a baseline survey involving 2,442 children from 58 public schools. “Results of the survey show that peers perpetrate most forms of violence experienced by children,” Diamond says. “Ridicule and teasing by peers are the most common experiences. Across three age ranges surveyed, the incidence of ridicule and teasing was reported to have been experienced by 50 percent among children in Grades 1 to 3; 67 percent among children in Grades 4 to 6; and 65 percent among children in high school.”

Diamond finds this disturbing because victims tend to develop “inhibitions and fears that affected the way they relate with other people, hampered their participation in school and pulled down their academic performance. For some, experiencing bullying even resulted in being scared to face the world outside of the home. It has led to absenteeism, with a number of children eventually dropping out and refusing to re-enroll.”

Studies reveal that bullying comes in various forms and level of intensity—from teasing, cursing, mockery, the spreading of vicious rumors, to running off with a child’s possession (often money or anything valuable), or posting malicious comments on school bulletin boards and burning of contents inside lockers. Other bullies resort to outright violence or threats, stalking, theft, psychological manipulation, physical abuse, even extortion. More serious forms include sexual harassment, gang rape, forced drug use, forced pornography and homicide.

Reprisals from both school officials and family members of bullies mostly account for why most incidents of bullying go unreported.

The cold shoulder

Statistics on bullying vary greatly among institutions tasked to keep watch over the young. Victims often deem it unnecessary or foolish to report incidents of verbal harassment or even physical abuse as most teachers or school administrators will just be quick to brush aside these episodes as infantile behavior. Teachers and school administrators untrained in handling the situation often resort to scolding or “academic blackmail,” as in the case of Danielle who was stripped of a chance to graduate as valedictorian just because she fought back. Often, the victims of such scolding or academic punishment are the injured party themselves—those who reckon that fighting back against the bullies is the only way out.

On this matter, the United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children of East Asia and the Pacific has this to say: “Where communities tolerate violence against children, it is often because they do not understand the damage that such violence does.  Children, however, speak out loud and clear when asked about behavior that adults use toward them: slapping, beating, shouting in anger, calling names, insulting or humiliating them—these may be ‘discipline’ to adults but to children they are violent and have immediate and longer-term repercussions.” As for the long-term repercussion, one gleans from Danielle’s words a change that scarcely needs any interpretation: “It’s the only thing left for me to do. No one in school, not even my teacher, seemed to mind what I was going through every day.”

The intellectual and psychological gap between child and adult, the complete difference in outlook, frequently builds a wall between the two, unwittingly compelling the child to keep mum about his predicament.

A quick review of the data, however, reveals one disturbing reality: Incidents of bullying are now mounting at an alarming rate in the Philippines and the world. Left unimpeded by school officials, bullying could lead to serious physical harm, psychological trauma or suicides, or in cases more serious like the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings in the United States, a killing spree.

Alarming statistics

A report by the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2004 pegged the figure higher: “More than 30 percent of Australian and New Zealand nine-year-olds surveyed said they were bullied regularly. The study involved almost 117,000 nine-year-olds from 25 countries. Only the Philippines [at 50 percent] and Taiwan [at 35 percent] were higher.”

Incidents of bullying in the Philippines, ironically, are getting some international attention. According to the paper “Bullying in Middle Schools: An Asian Pacific Regional Study by the Asia Pacific Education Review (2008, Vol. 9, No. 4, p.503-515, Figure 1),” Filipino children have a higher rate of being “made fun of” by other children (57 percent to 58 percent) than schoolchildren in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan. In all categories, the Philippines ranked higher than the rest: 39 percent experienced theft; 36 percent were physically hurt; 45 percent were forced to do things they didn’t want; and 30 percent were left out of groups. In Mongolia, 27 percent of schoolchildren have experienced bullying.

Diamond stressed, “Various studies show that children who experience violence in the home, such as physical punishment or verbal abuse in the guise of discipline, are more anxious or aggressive. Aggression breeds aggression. Children subjected to corporal punishment were observed to have strong tendencies to bully their peers.”

Apparently, the current educational system, in a way, contributes to occasions of bullying. Diamond explains: “The current educational system and structures should in a way prevent the occurrence of bullying in schools. However, given the big number of students per class, it becomes difficult for teachers to manage the class well. In other words, the classroom environment contributes to the issue of bullying. Cramped classrooms and poor classroom management breed discomfort and restlessness among the children.”

Getting rid of the stigma

International studies on child violence have shown that bullying occurs in all levels in school, with high-school freshmen getting the brunt of aggravation. For some, the stigma of being a victim is carried over all throughout their years in school.

The Community Oriented Policing Services of the US State Department says that “bullying most often occurs where adult supervision is low or absent; schoolyards, cafeteria, bathrooms, hallways and stairwells” are the places where it most occurs. Although bullying in classrooms also occurs, its frequency can be best associated with how teachers and school administrators respond to reports of harassment. If the teacher, for some reason, dismisses a report of bullying in the classroom, often the victims will resort to staying mum about the incident.

It should be understood by teachers and parents that snitching is hardly the act that schoolchildren engage in as it is considered a sign of cowardice. For the report to be summarily dismissed by teachers as a case of childish prank—thus not needing any form of punishment, not even a slap on the wrist—only aggravates the already low status of the child among his peers.

Worse, a no-response attitude among the school administrators serves as an open invitation for bullies to continue.

Gakko ura: the ‘dark schools’

A more recent inclusion is the Internet. Cyber-bullies, as they are now called, find occasion often in community websites, blog sites and e-mails to harass unsuspecting young victims. The US State Department reported that “middle school, high school and college students from Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley area posted website messages that were full of sexual innuendo aimed at individual students and focusing on topics such as ‘the weirdest people at your school.’ The online bulletin boards had been accessed more than 67,000 times in a two-week period, prompting a sense of despair among scores of teenagers disparaged on the site, and frustration among parents and school administrators.”

There are scores of other ways bullies use gadgets and electronic devices to disparage youngsters, such as the sending of sexually explicit and spiteful text messages, nude photos by SMS, and hate messages and rumors through e-mail. There are websites specifically constructed to spite and disparage youngsters and schoolchildren for the whole world to see and read.

Fact is, a PlayStation 2 computer game called “Bully” has been banned in some countries for its explicitly violent nature.

In Japan, 20 percent of about 38,000 unofficial Internet bulletin boards operated by children all around the country are said to contain “insults and abusive language” aimed at other schoolchildren, as reported by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry of Japan.

Called gakko ura sites, literally meaning “dark schools,” these online bulletin boards are said to be “inciting bullying and abusive behavior among students,” which carry hate and insulting messages. It reached alarming proportions in 2006 when gakko ura websites began proliferating on the Internet. Among the victims of these sites was a third-year student at the Kobe High School who leaped to his death after his naked photos were posted in the websites, according to one newspaper report.

On incidents of cyber-bullying, the United Nations report says: “The consultation heard that the three concepts of access, anonymity and abuse are critical factors that contribute to children’s vulnerability. Access refers to the way new technologies facilitate the exploiter’s contact with children while children increasingly have access to the Internet and other technologies. The personal and private nature of this access also implies exploiters have increasing access to children. Anonymity allows children to experiment and engage in risky behavior, often without someone supervising them, and this increases their vulnerability. Conversely, anonymity works in favor of the abuser, who acts with relative impunity. Abuse occurs as a consequence of the opportunities these new technologies provide for those who seek to harm children, including sexual abuse and exploitation. New technologies also make it easier for children and young people to be exposed to violent and exploitative images.”

Apparently, bullying and cyber-bullying in Asia are now “in vogue,” if one could call it that. Across the region, reports of bullying have increased based on the study made by Lao PDR, which pegs a figure of 98 percent of girls and 100 percent of boys who reportedly witnessed bullying in their schools. This reveals more than the commonplace truth that bullying is rampant; what this exposes is that bullying has become nearly an accepted practice in schools.

Internet child porn

“Children may be ‘stalked’ online, receive threats or harassment via the Internet or their mobile phones,” the UN warns. “New technologies also carry the risk to children of ‘cyber-bullying,’ where children have no easy way to escape from the bully, who is conversely protected by the anonymity the technology provides. The pervasive and persistent nature of these attacks, and the isolation of the child in front of the screen receiving them, make them particularly violent.”

Forced child pornography is perhaps one of the worst forms of cyber-bullying, when photos taken of an unwilling or forced victim are circulated on the Internet through e-mail, online bulletin boards, mobile phones and community websites. Ways to get a clandestine malicious snapshot vary: digital cameras of mobile phones or hidden digital cameras are the most common. Close to four million websites are dedicated to “upskirt” and “underwear” photos of unsuspecting teenage girls in school uniforms inside school bathrooms, stairwells, dressing rooms, classrooms, locker rooms, etc. A more serious version of this crime—it should be considered a crime—is when school gangs compel a student of the opposite sex (or same sex) to pose or do explicit sexual acts before their cameras under threat of beatings or death or blackmail.

Legislating educational health

Educational health must be part and parcel of the government’s thrust toward educational development. Efforts of government and educational institutions to create laws and policies against bullying leave much to be desired. Both chambers of Congress must soon come to terms with the repercussions that bullying forces into the lives of our children.

Diamond says efforts are being done at the legislative level. “Through the Child Rights Network (CRN) and together with other nongovernment institutions, Plan Philippines is pushing for the immediate passage of House Bill 6699, known as the Anti-Corporal Punishment Bill. The bill was introduced by Rep. Monica Prieto-Teodoro and other members of the House of Representatives. In the proposed bill, bullying was included in the definition of ‘corporal punishment,’ which refers to punishment or penalty for an offense or imagined offense, and/or acts carried out to discipline, train or control, inflicted by an adult or by another child, who has been given or has assumed authority or responsibility for punishment or discipline. It includes physical and humiliating or degrading punishment.”

Apparently, there are no bills that specifically address bullying at this time.

There are schools that have already taken a firm stand. According to BBC News in 2006, the Sakura Junior High School in Japan took a strong position against bullying when the face of a 15-year-old schoolgirl—Kasumi Komori—was shown on the large screen inside its auditorium while every single pupil watched in horror at what had happened. They were shown images of Komori’s life as the mother spoke to the children about her daughter who committed suicide because of bullying.

Schools—being the second home of Filipino schoolchildren—and their administrators must be held liable for any serious neglect in this regard. Theirs is a vocation of public trust, an idea that revolves around second-parent privilege, which families who pay their children’s tuition in good conscience entrust to the officials of these educational institutions. Schools must beef up security, train administrators and teachers to handle bullying incidents appropriately, and establish support groups that are skilled and ready to handle the trauma that goes with child-to-child aggression. To renege on this duty to our children is as serious a crime as the criminal violence these negligent schools unwittingly condone.

As for parents, the little time offered to listen to the cries of the child, or read behind the silence or atypical aggression, is a first step to the healing that victims of bullying are looking for. The effort to stop bullying must begin at home.

(Mr. Salud is the managing editor of Philippines Graphic magazine. He may be reached at [email protected])