They gossiped on WhatsApp about which pupils were having sex with whom, speculated about whose parents were HIV positive, and labelled schoolmates “ugly”, “gay” and “too black”.
The cyberbullying in the “Real Goboza” chat group at Thuto-Lesedi Senior Secondary School in Vosloorus, Gauteng, had got out of hand.
All teachers could do was console the slandered – many of whom were very poor pupils – and encourage them to study hard and change their circumstances.
But all this changed thanks to an intervention by the Columba Leadership youth programme, which trained 12 pupils to manage conflict and tackle the scourge.
Now the school, which has about 2 000 pupils, has been bully free for more than a year.
The gossip group begun when two pupils, a boy and a girl, named schoolgirls they suspected had babies with boyfriends, outed victims of rape, and made snide remarks about poor classmates who shared bedrooms with their parents and wore the same clothes every day.
Nothing was off limits.
“I was told that I’m not beautiful. I was told I was a monkey. I cried the whole night and I thought of killing myself,” one pupil told City Press this week.
Tensions came to a head one Friday afternoon, when a group of pupils went to the home of a schoolmate they accused of creating the group.
They stood outside her house demanding she come out and threw stones on the roof.
The girl’s mother emerged and threw a kettle full of boiling water at them.
Six values of leadership
The school tackled bullying by sending 12 Grade 10 and 11 pupils to a weeklong programme run by Colomba Leadership, during the July holidays last year.
Group leader Katleho Matheba (16) said they were taught to build their courage and self-confidence and six values of leadership: awareness, focus, integrity, perseverance, creativity and service.
They were asked to identify the school’s worst problems and come up with solutions. The biggest problem they noted was bullying.
Group secretary Lebohang Thuse (16) said they were told that, as leaders, they needed to bring change to society and start with smaller things before moving the rocks.
“So, we started with the littering problem and then dealt with the bigger challenge.”
Back at school, they organised silent protests during breaks in which they taped their mouths shut and sat on chairs with placards denouncing all forms of bullying.
The boys formed a circle around the girls, tied together with rope, to send a message that their role was to protect girls.
“I really regret doing it"
Matheba said they set up discussion groups to allow pupils to share experiences and seek solutions together.
One boy, who admitted he was one of the bullies who contributed to the Real Goboza chat group, said the interventions taught him that bullying was “not a cool thing”.
“I really regret doing it. I feel sorry that I offended others and I’ve learnt that I should not do what I would not want others to do to me,” he said.
Economics teacher Xolisile Ntuli said the bullies’ victims confided in them.
“We could only console and motivate them to focus on their studies. Those that were attacked because of their poor background were motivated to work hard so that they could change the situation in their homes,” she said.
School principal Madoda Madi said it was a nightmare to manage close to 2 000 pupils at the school affected by the group. He tried to involve teachers to help.
“We involved the school governing body. It was an opportunity for us to educate pupils to be careful when using social media platforms,” he said.
“We chose not to use punitive measures such as expelling pupils. We approached this using corrective measures through education.”
And it has worked.
“Since we had the silent protest and sent out the message on Real Goboza, we no longer have bullying in our school,” Matheba said.
Columba Leadership chief executive Tracy Hackland said they worked with the department of basic education to offer a values-based leadership programme.
It is intended to inspire young people to “lead change in their own lives, schools and communities”.
She said they were helping schools talk to their pupils and change the culture.
“This sees principals, teachers and pupils working in partnership to bring change in their schools and communities after they complete the Columba Leadership academy,” Hackland said.
With increased confidence, sense of purpose, resilience and grit, pupils often became less vulnerable to peer pressure and bullying.
HOW WE DID IT
Here is some advice from pupils at Thuto-Lesedi Senior Secondary School on how to tackle bullying:
- Have boxes where victims of bullying can anonymously disclose what has happened to them. Some may be too ashamed to talk in public;
- Set up support groups where participants are assured of confidentiality;
- Involve pupils in leadership programmes aimed at ridding the school of bullying and other negative behaviour; and
- Seek support from schools that have been successful in dealing with the scourge and from organisations doing this work.
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