Saturday, February 24, 2018

Bullying — here we go again

The recent incident involving a student of a well-known primary school in south Trinidad and his peers has been reported as a case of bullying. behaviour of that sort is outrageous, repulsive and unacceptable act of infringement on basic human rights. It's an act that must be aggressively condemned.

The issue of bullying is not a new phenomenon; in fact according to one researcher, bullying as we know it today, has been around since 1825, a time when perhaps a name for the behaviour was not yet coined. While the incident described above, as well as others such as the one posted on Facebook some months ago, involved extreme physical and verbal attacks of one person on another, there are many other forms of less intense or perhaps what might be called more subtle forms of violence that exist in the schools of Trinidad and Tobago. Forcefully taking a child's lunch money or taxi fare, as well as taking his calculator, or cellphone or perhaps his brand new laptop under threatening circumstances all qualify as bullying.

Over the years, the media have reported several instances of students being bullied for their brand name sneakers, jackets and backpacks, all resulting in the students who are victims of bullying being afraid, intimidated and in most instances physically harmed by their bully or bullies.

No matter what form bullying takes and whether or not there is physical harm inflicted on the victim, the emotional, psychological and mental well-being of all the victims is severely compromised — in some cases totally destroyed. Psychologists will offer much expert reasoning for what makes someone a bully; but what is far less understood is what makes someone a victim; and what can those in authority do to bridge the obvious gap that exists between the bully and the victim.

A victim of bullying can be anyone — male or female, academically brilliant or not, wealthy or poor, even popular or not. The ironic thing about bullying is that it continues only for as long as the victim — and not the bully — allows it to continue. Once the victim gives in to or accepts the victim's role, the bully is empowered. Notwithstanding that, it is not easy for a victim to reject this role and oftentimes he or she cannot do it alone. Furthermore, realising there really is a way out is sometimes the more difficult hurdle to cross. The threats, the body language and the beatings all work in tandem to keep the victim in a submissive mode and the bully in a domineering role.

Unfortunately, our school system does not make it easy for victims to seek help or even to make their attacks known. I remember attending a school where detected incidents of bullying were dealt with in a public forum — the alleged bully and details of the bullying incidents were made public at school assemblies. This approach had a negative effect on bullying. Once time elapsed and everyone forgot about the specific incident, the bully rose again, often with greater wrath and vengeance than before.

My own experience with schools in T&T is that we do not have an effective system — an explicit policy on bullying — in place to detect and further, to meaningfully address bullying. We know it exists, and as principals and teachers, we talk a lot about it to our students with the hope that our message will get through to the bullies and somehow inspire them to desist. What we do not do, however, is speak with equal passion to the victims; to let them know what they should do, where they should seek help, what help is available and how they can get out of the receiving end.

The solution has to begin at the school level; with proactive administrators and teachers who are willing to go the extra mile to truly address this problem. I know of one school that has a "students' issue box" in which students can write about anything that is bothering them and place it into the box, with one condition —the student write his or her name and contact number on the paper. The box is emptied periodically and thoroughly checked by a designated group of teachers along with a guidance counsellor.

Indeed there will be some hoaxes, but if a genuine victim leaves a note in such a box, it just might be possible to detect the onset of incidents like the recent rape of a secondary school girl and the stabbing of another student. Furthermore, at this school, a structure exists which allows for victims to obtain help in a private setting where the matter is discussed and the teachers and principal take it upon themselves to monitor the situation discreetly and to intervene at an opportune time.

While this may sound simplistic; it is a starting point and it is interesting to note that at this particular school, bullying has been totally eliminated. I am certain that with some degree of creativity, a bit of innovation, deep thought and introspection and lots of commitment, other schools, principals and teachers, can effectively address this problem.

• Dr Rawatee Maharaj-Sharma is a lecturer at the School of Education, UWI, St Augustine