Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Bully for you!

Bullying is in the news again. (Is it ever out of the news?) The suicide of a young girl bullied at a party, a death after years of homophobic bullying and the news that 400 pupils in Essex alone change schools each year to avoid bullies... will it ever end? 

I've had plenty of first-hand experience of bullying in the past: I've dealt with it in schools as a teacher (and not just, I might add, bullying by pupils). But I'd never really thought of myself as a victim. Until now.

I was badly bullied at school. I was bullied for being the new boy, bullied for speaking in a different accent, bullied for not bullying other boys, bullied for being quite well-behaved in class and doing my homework, bullied - basically - for anything and everything.

It was a new experience for me. I’d not been bullied before. I attended several different schools thanks to frequent house moves and I was only really bullied at one of them, where my accent, attitude and actions stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

At the time, aged ten, I was at a loss to explain what was happening. The bullying was often violently physical. I remember one older boy literally kicking me - hard - up the backside all the way home one afternoon. If I ran (which I did) to try and get away then he could run faster and he had a run up and the kick was even harder. 

As a teacher, dealing with bullying in schools, I've sometimes been at a loss to know exactly what to do. Because - no matter how unsympathetic it might sound or how politically incorrect - there is often a ‘victim’ type. There are some children who for some indefinable reason seem to attract bullying. Believe me, it’s true. And I’ve spent a lot of time counselling those individuals and trying - without shifting any blame - to help them learn strategies to avoid continuing to be the victim. 

I wasn’t one of them. I’m not a typical ‘victim’. And I never really think that much these days about my own experience of bullying. 

But then, last week, a report claiming that the effects of bullying can last for up to fifty years set me thinking. It’s a long time since the two-year bullying hell that was my time at this particular school (which I suppose had better remain nameless). But I do still think about it, now and then. It sometimes even figures in my dreams (or nightmares). So perhaps that report is right and - if you’re the victim of bullying - you’re going to suffer long after the bruises fade and the bullying stops.

It’s incredibly difficult to know what to do in schools as far as bullying is concerned. As I've already said, I found it hard that the pragmatic approach of training a child not be be victim seemed to suggest in some subtle way that it was their 'fault'. Which is anything but the truth.

And as a parent, in spite of my experience, I know I'd find it difficult to decide what to do if one of my children was involved. Do you encourage them to fight back? Assertiveness works, and strong words are good. But then bullies (at least, the physical ones) often don’t have words which is why they use their fists - and verbal jousting might just be as a red rag to a bull. And how can you know - before it's too late - if your child is being bullied? I never told my parents. There were other signs, including nightmares and school-refusal, but the culture of 'not telling tales' still sees most bullies safely through their schooling.

Reporting it, of course, is essential. Schools do have very clear procedures for dealing with bullying and all reported cases have to be recorded. But the term ‘bullying’ covers such a vast range of abusive behaviour - from name-calling to serious, physical assault - that it is tremendously difficult to deal with according to a single policy. Bullies - in spite of what we might think - aren’t all the same; they’re not all cowards; they don’t all bully because they're bullied themselves. (One recent reports even suggests that bullying makes children popular.) And victims too, are as different as you’d expect different people to be - from obviously vulnerable to the otherwise normal (like, I think, me). 

So what can be done? Is the bully (like the poor, according the the Bible) someone we will always have among us? Or will, one day, the kind of bullying I experienced and which blights the lives of so many be as much of an historical anachronism as the fagging, beatings and abuse that were once ubiquitous at many public schools?

Something has to be done, that's certain.

But what?

If you're worried about bullying there are a number on online site that can help, including:

Beat Bullying
Bullying UK

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