Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dealing with school bullies

Dana Seetahal logo44

Mark Fraser

 Bullying and even violence in schools have been with us for decades. There have been many studies about school violence in the recent past in this country. Nothing however seems to have stemmed the tide and the last week has seen the eruption of bullying and attendant violence in schools across region and gender. Since a school is a microcosm of the wider society it would be unrealistic to expect that what is occurring in the country at large would not be reflected in our schools.

It is a truism that children learn by example. It is a rare person who is born a bad seed and is innately evil. The people who have the greatest impact on how a child evolves therefore are first and foremost his parents, then his immediate family circle and eventually his peers. Negative peer pressure can be effectively muted by strong familial influences or positive role models who exhibit moral values and work ethic.

The above leads to what is known by most people, even if not accepted by many. Bad parenting is the root of deviant behaviour among children and young persons. In this regard it was instructive to read a statement by one of the parents of a pupil who was a recent victim of bullying. She said that several of the offending pupils had been suspended in the past and their parents sent for by the school. She said the parents never showed up; only the parents of the victim attended and the suspended pupils simply returned to school. With that kind of non-involvement of parents what kind of behaviour would one expect of their children? 

How are the schools expected to deal with this kind of child? Section 27 of the Education Act provides that, “Principals of schools shall be responsible for the day-to-day management of their school including — (a) the supervision of the physical safety of pupils;... (and) (d) the discipline of the school”. Thus a principal (or the appropriate teacher to whom she delegates this function) may impose disciplinary measures on pupils . 

In my day order marks and detention were serious enough measures. The worst fate was to be called into the principal’s office. Physical fights off the compound of the school in uniform were unheard of and if there was any confrontation at school the staff immediately dealt with it. In 2014 I daresay these measures would not suffice.

The ultimate sanction under the law that a principal may impose is suspension of the pupil “for gross misconduct may be considered injurious or dangerous to other pupils or whose attendance at school is likely for any serious cause to have detrimental effect upon the other pupils...” If he does suspend a pupil the principal must immediately notify the parent of the pupil and the Minister of Education of the suspension and the reasons. 

A principal may only impose a suspension for up to a week. It is the minister who may extend the term of suspension in order to enable proper enquiries to be made. Thereafter after an investigation he can order reinstatement; transfer to another school or expulsion. It is anybody’s guess given the likely length of any investigation how often mandatory transfer or expulsion occurs.

The virtual impotence of the principal in a crisis situation is demonstrated by the fact that in the case of the pupils from the ASJA school who were recently charged by the police for fighting, several of them had been previously suspended for various disciplinary offences. It was reported that some were suspended eight times. Obviously suspension has had no effect in the case of these hard nuts. In some cases pupils do not even tell their parents of their suspension; find some creative way to prevent communication between the school and parents and while away their days of suspension in other activities, no doubt laughing at the system. 

It is anybody’s guess where such pupils will end up. From my personal experience I have found that most young persons who find themselves before the courts charged with serious offences are those who have been the victims of neglectful or abusive parents. In some cases they are the products of over-indulgent parents who see no wrong with their children — except if they disturb the parents’ own good time. Ten to one they made no use of educational opportunities, can barely read or write and later engaged in illegal activities to support themselves.

Not all these children are lost causes. Sometimes they actually may benefit from intervention whether it is from supportive adults, groups or even peers. The problem of course is how to deal with the situation and rescue those who can be saved from their downward spiral while at the same time safeguarding the victims of their bullying or violence.

In that regard I have some sympathy for the views expressed by Opposition Leader Keith Rowley that such pupils should be extracted from the regular school system and placed in different environments. There is actually provision in the Education Act allowing the Minister (of Education) to establish a special school as a separate unit or as part of an existing public institution. It may be time to give consideration to setting up such schools to treat with the current indiscipline problem that does not seem to be going away. 

Whether it is termed “boot camp” or not is irrelevant. Some form of military training and discipline might be the only way of quelling and controlling the tide of indiscipline that is threatening to engulf the entire secondary and probably the primary school system. The Mylat-Mypart programme which currently exists as an intervention programme within the Ministry of National Security may be a useful example for the structure of special schools for at-risk youths. Although it took some time to get off the ground the programme is now bearing fruit where its graduates can become recruits into the Defence Force.

* Dana S Seetahal is a former independent senator