Culture of bullying in schools has become institutionalised

2014-06-07 00:00

BULLYING takes place against an imbalance of power in a relationship, said psychologist Clive Willows.

“That power could be physical, one of age, or economics.”

A bully exploits that power.

Willows said there are degrees of bullying at all levels of society in both social and interpersonal relationships. “As a society, South Africa is soft on bullying. This has resulted in a macho bravado persona being valued in this society.”

While individual incidents get condemned as wrong, Willows said in “the rest of society other examples are applauded. An individual grows up in a society in which these norms are accepted.”

Willows said a bully doesn’t have a sense of accountability. “They have little regard for the feelings of others — something which underpins most anti-social behaviour. But bullies have frailties and inadequacies of their own,” said Willows. “They have some flaw or weakness in their personalities. They have an insecure identity and don’t have a good sense of who they are.”

Willows said a culture of bullying in South African schools had become institutionalised. “Schools should be unequivocal in condemning it.”

Simon Weaver, headmaster of Cordwalles Preparatory School, Pietermaritzburg, who has published several studies on bullying, said “everyone has the capacity to be hurtful to others” but that those who bully usually “have complications in their lives” and are “trying to be something they are not”.

“Bullying often occurs where there is an audience, and this is especially the case when it comes to school bullying.”

Weaver said that most bullying situations were about “power, one’s position in a hierarchy, and having power over another person. Typically a bully will pick on someone else as a way of elevating their status in a group.”

Weaver said that as a prep school principal he was particularly concerned about bullying. “It bothers me that children leaving prep schools are then hammered in their first year at senior school.”

Weaver said it was prevalent among secondary schools that “grade eights are brought down to size. They are beaten down and made to feel small with the idea of building them up again.

“In senior school you find grade eights can be made to run everywhere, say ‘sir’ to those in higher classes, standing back to allow matrics to pass or ‘fagging’ for prefects.

“It is about hierarchy. It’s about entrenching respect for elders, for those in greater positions or those with more power.

“I’m not saying we should do away with hierarchy but respect should work in all directions — up, down and sideways. Yes, there should be respect for superiors but there should be respect for everyone, especially those who are vulnerable.

“Education is about unlocking every child’s God-given talent and making them the best they can be. But bullying is allowed by the schools, who turn a blind eye and whose stance is either to deny it happens or defend it all costs.

“Every child who is being educated in our schools should be given the opportunity to feel happy, secure and safe as it is under these conditions that he/she can become the best they can be.

“Why do we allow our children to be destroyed by this curse? What are we doing to Grade 8 children by allowing this type of thing to happen?

“Every school in this country is involved and it should be dealt with as a national issue. But it will take a lot of doing because these things are entrenched.”

• Stephen.Coan@witness.co.za

SIMON Weaver’s knowledge of bullying comes from personal experience. “I effectively lost five years of senior school due to bullying. I lost my self-esteem and didn’t achieve what I should have. It really took it out of me. I rediscovered myself at university. I was rekindled and accepted for who I was.”

But what saw Weaver research bullying and become an acknowledged expert on the subject was an incident that occurred while he was a teacher at St John’s College in Johannesburg in the early 1990s.

“There was a boy who was going on an international hockey tour. His father had been killed in a township — necklaced — and he had witnessed that. He had already suffered an extreme level of trauma. As the time for the tour got nearer some other boys teased him, saying the aeroplane would fall out of the sky. He came to me and told me what was happening.

“He said it was making him scared but also making him very angry. What was he to do? I did the worst thing I could have done and told him to ‘suck it up; it’s not going to happen’.

“On the day they were to fly out he lost his temper and punched the bully, knocking out several of his teeth.

“When we came back from the tour he was expelled from the school but nothing happened to the bully.

“That really marked me and changed my attitude to bullying. I realised that this is something we need to take very seriously.”

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