OPINION | What should be done to stop bullying in schools

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Lufuno Mavhunga's victimisation and her tragic death highlight the scourge, as well as the seriousness, of the problem of bullying in South African schools, writes Emmanuel Mayeza.

On Monday, 12 April 2021, Lufuno Mavhunga, a 15-year-old at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo, South Africa, was aggressively assaulted by another learner at school.

The video showing the humiliating violent attack was circulated on various social media platforms. Sadly, Lufuno subsequently died as a result of suicide.

During the bullying incident, bystanders (her schoolmates) watched, cheered, laughed, and recorded videos of the incident. The alleged perpetrator (a 14-year-old girl at the same school) has since been arrested by the police and charged with assault.

READ | Limpopo pupil dies, says education dept, as it probes video showing bullying

The school will institute disciplinary action against the bystanders who failed to assist and protect Lufuno. Lufuno's family, however, believes that the school did not do enough to support Lufuno after the incident was reported to the school principal. 

The victimisation of Lufuno could have been prevented.      

Suicide: the ultimate consequence of being bullied at school

Lufuno's victimisation and her tragic death highlight the scourge, as well as the seriousness, of the problem of bullying in South African schools.

School-based bullying has various consequences for everyone at school, but victims often incur the most devastation from bullying.

The consequences of being bullied at school include the development of psychological and emotional problems such as distress, damaged self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

If these problems are not addressed timeously or appropriately, it could ultimately result in suicide. Although Lufuno's victimisation was reported to the school authorities, the young victim did not receive any professional psychological counselling following the traumatic experiences of being bullied and the video of this incident being shared on social media.

It seems that the victim dealt with the bullying mostly by herself and that the people who knew about the bullying did not take her ordeal and anxieties seriously enough. 

Bullying is gendered and complex: Girls as victims and as bullies 

Bullying is a form of gender violence. It is based on the asymmetrical relations of power that are prevalent in our patriarchal society.

The key feature of such relations is men and boys assuming authority, domination, and control through violence against girls, women, and femininities.

However, Lufuno's victimisation draws our attention to the complexities of bullying and gender power relations among learners at school. Although boys and men often emerge as perpetrators of violence against girls and women, bullying in schools is a complex issue and girls are not always the passive victims of male violence. Both girls and boys can become victims and bullies.

Bullying is an expression of power, and girls too are capable of expressing power through forms of violence against other girls and against some boys.

Indeed, a recent study on bullying among learners in a South African primary school highlights the vulnerability of younger boys to violence perpetrated by older girls at school. Therefore, we must acknowledge that the victimisation of Lufuno by another girl is not something unique.

Gender relations are dynamic, and we can see that girls too have learnt how to use violence to express power and to claim dominance over other learners in schools. 

What needs to be done to stop and prevent school-based bullying?  

While the processes of the criminal justice system regarding Lufuno's victimisation are underway, effective prevention programmes are also required in order to stop bullying at school.

Such programmes must be designed with the view to empower everyone at school with skills and knowledge on how to prevent bullying from happening, and how to react appropriately when bullying is witnessed or reported.

To end bullying, the school should consider addressing bystanders, improving the availability of professional support services to victims of bullying, re-thinking the curriculum, and establishing stronger partnerships with other stakeholders. 

All learners at the school must be addressed in terms of the roles that they can play as active bystanders who are committed to ending bullying.

Bystanders must be empowered so that they know what bullying constitutes and are able to see when bullying happens and know how to intervene appropriately to stop it and protect the victim.

They must know the seriousness of bullying and its consequences, and that this includes suicide.

Bystanders must understand that posting a video or a photo on social media showing someone being abused is in itself also a form of bullying. Bystanders must be informed that they have a responsibility to report any form of bullying they witness at school to the school authorities or to their parents or guardians. 

When learners report bullying, school authorities need to take the reported incident seriously and act appropriately, especially in terms of supporting the victim.

To reduce the risk of victims taking their own lives, professional psychological counselling support must be offered to the victims without delay. However, the risk of taking their own lives among victims of bullying can only be significantly reduced if proper resources and victim support services are available at the school.

The lack of such resources and services at Mbilwi Secondary School presents a major risk for victims to resort to suicide. 

READ | Local NGO assists schools and parents with anti-bullying skills after Limpopo tragedy

The school should also explore possibilities of developing learning programmes that will foreground bullying and raise awareness about this serious issue. Such programmes should be compulsory for all learners and must be designed to encourage learners to speak out about their experiences, perceptions, and anxieties around bullying.

Consequences of bullying and what needs to be done to stop and prevent school-based bullying should also form part of the topics for discussion within such learning programmes. 

However, the school cannot be successful in its efforts toward ending bullying if it acts alone. The violent behaviour that learners demonstrate at school, reflects, to a large extent, the normalised violence within households and communities.

The school, therefore, must form strong partnerships with parents, communities, government, religious institutions, and other relevant stakeholders to explore effective ways of addressing bullying at school.

The school must engage productively with these different stakeholders, and such engagements should also include learners' voices and perspectives on the issue of bullying and how to end it.

Dr Emmanuel Mayeza is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.

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