Take a stand

2012-08-16 00:00

BULLYING has become a national epidemic, with many schools adopting policies to address the issue. Just this week, the Sharks announced that they will start an anti-bullying campaign in KwaZulu-Natal schools in partnership with KZN Childline to help deal with the phenomenon.

“The statistics from the [Childline] call centre in KZN are frightening,” John Plumtree said. “They are fielding something like 20 000 calls a month.”

A Gauteng schoolboy committed suicide on Valentine’s Day this year after being beaten by a group of bullies. His parents found a letter in his school bag asking them to come and speak to the principal. It was too late.

The problem is not just a South African one. In Britain, 16 000 children stay at home every year because they are too afraid to go to school and in the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people.

New U.S. documentary Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch, graphically highlights the link between bullying and the rise in suicides at schools across the U.S. I travelled to Durban to a media screening of the movie and two of us sat in a vast theatre. The last time I was in a movie theatre that empty I was watching FOOD Inc — a movie on the manipulative machinations of the food industry — and what I saw then made my stomach churn in disgust. This one did too, but for different reasons.

As I waited for the movie, I had a flashback of going to fetch my son in Grade 1. His school bag was ripped open and his books were falling out. His eyes were filling with tears. “It wasn’t me, Mom,” he said.

An older boy was his tormentor. This boy had taken a pen knife and cut open my son’s school bag while he was at break. I went to the headmaster and demanded action; instead, his words did little to inspire confidence. He told me my son would have to toughen up and suggested that I enrol him in karate lessons. “Life’s not fair,” he said.

I heard of another boy in the same school who had his head pushed down the toilet by a group of bigger boys who then urinated on him. The boy’s mother, a single mom, was terrified as they’d taken to following him home and taunting him. The school was one of the “best” in the area.

We took the decision to move our son to another school, but she could not. In the U.S., the schools have also adopted piecemeal measures to curb bullying, but, as the movie shows, these attempts are feeble.

Hirsch was a victim of bullying as a child and decided to make a documentary so that the hidden lives of children persecuted by their peers would be brought into the open.

The film focuses on Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, who both took their lives because of bullying. Their deaths caused their families to examine the issue and to campaign for the rights of those kids who are being bullied.

The movie shows how the bullying continues unabated on the bus routes where bullies (caught on camera) abuse their victims mercilessly, strangling them, verbally abusing them, threatening them and making their lives hell.

The bus drivers do nothing while the children behave like wild animals. The main character in the movie is Alex Libby, the oldest son of an Iowa family. He looks a little different from the other kids and he is called “fish face”. When he leaves home, he becomes the punching bag for the neighbourhood kids. His parents seem unaware of how to help him deal with his daily torment. His father encourages his son, who is immobilised by fear, to fight back.

According to statistics released by the National Centre for Education Statistics, nearly a third of all pupils aged 12 to 18 reported having been bullied at school.

In high schools, the predominant form of bullying is known as “pack bullying”. A person is identified by a larger group and they are subjected to physical or emotional bullying in person or in cyber space. The person being bullied can be attacked in the hallways, school grounds, and on the school bus.

Individual bullying is more likely to take place in primary school in isolated areas. Here the bully is likely to use pushing, shoving, hitting, fighting, spitting and tripping. These acts of violence are intended to force the victim to act in a certain way.

Emotional bullying is where the victim is called insulting names, they experience derogatory remarks, name calling and teasing. The victim is also deliberately left out of a group or ignored.

Cyber bullying takes place online, through either e-mail, chat rooms, social networking services, text messages, instant messages, website postings, blogs, or a combination of means. Often the bullies conceal their identity while posting insulting or derogatory remarks about the victim. It includes sending mean or threatening messages; gossiping about someone online, including posting sensitive or private information; impersonating someone in order to cast that person in a bad light; and excluding someone from an online page or group.

Pietermaritzburg psychologist Clive Willows said there is much that parents and schools can do. “Parents can teach and demonstrate respect and tolerance for others, and the importance of compassion and empathy.

“They should give their children a sense of self-worth so they don’t need to behave in an extreme manner to seek approval from others.”

Willows believes schools need to take bullying very seriously. “A regard for the feelings and wellbeing of others is an attitude that needs to be encouraged as much as bullying behaviour needs to be extinguished.

“Bullying should be considered as the worst of all possible demeanours and should result in the most severe of discipline options available to the school.”

Willows said tackling bullying needs intervention from the school and the parents, and the child needs to be involved in the decision or he or she could be victimised further.

He said bullying is increasing in response to our environment. “Our world is contaminated with overt aggression, crime and war, and the danger is that children become desensitised to acts of aggression and selfishness, and become disconnected from the emotional reality of its effect on both the victim and society as a whole.”

His wife Jill Willows, also a psychologist, added that coping skills are important. “It must be emphasised to “bullied” children that they are not the focus of treatment because they are the problem. They can be taught coping skills. One such skill is to learn to “filter” comments. They do not have to take everything to heart. Building their resilience is something that parents can focus on and this is preferred to overprotection as they can develop their own way of facing the problem. Having their own goals, areas of achievement and positive relationships at home can all help children to bounce back from bullying.”

Marilyn Greenwich, who gives anti-bullying workshops in Johannesburg, said that the ethos of schools is important. “Bullying cannot develop in schools that place a high priority on honour, justice and respect. Bullies quickly learn through social sanctions what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

“Parents must be aware that they are role models and aggressive behaviour in the home translates into bullying behaviour at school.

“Dominating personalities need guidance on the moderation of that power. Parents of teens who are timid and submissive need to teach them through example and communication how to claim their power and be assertive. Most bullies are reduced to helplessness when confronted with genuine opposition.

“Bullies who victimise children will also victimise an adult teacher if they are not stopped in their tracks. Childhood bullies of today become gang leaders of tomorrow,” she warned.

• Bully will open tomorrow at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway.

IN case studies, researchers have found that the following children may be likely victims of bullies:

• children with sexual orientation issues or who are perceived to not be heterosexual due to their mannerisms or physical characteristics;

• children who have a particular physical disability or learning disability;

• children who belong to a minority racial or cultural group within a school community;

• children who adhere to a specific religious belief that is not common in the area.

THE victims of bullies are likely to suffer for many years and it can take therapy and lots of positive reinforcement to help these victims. The effects are:

• low self-esteem;

• difficulty in trusting others;

• lack of assertiveness;

• suppressed aggression;

• difficulty controlling anger; and

• isolation.


• Signs of depression, like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others, losing interest in favourite activities, or trouble sleeping or eating.

• Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying.

• Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behaviour, substance abuse, or self-injury.

• Giving away favourite possessions and saying goodbye to people.

• Saying or expressing that they can’t handle things anymore.

• Making comments that things would be better without them.


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