There is a child at school who hides every lunch break. In the toilets, behind the classroom, in the library....wherever invisibility can be found. This child could be 6, 10, 13 or 16. In fact, this child is found in every school, in almost every class.
There is another child who cowers in fear, every day at the same time, in the same place. Somewhere on the school grounds, this child is afraid and nobody is there to help.
Another child cries every night before bed. This child spends time catching up with friends online almost every day. This child has friends, is smart, has a great family and not a care in the world. Yet there they are, crying.
Then there is the child who is hurting themselves, on the outside. In places they want nobody to see, this child is bleeding. Careful not to show the painful scars to the world. This child is always sad, has no friends, doesn't see the beauty of the world and has much worse scars on the inside.
The one connection that these children have......is the bully.
The first child cops the taunts, the jeers and the sarcasm of an entire class. The first child is overweight, far too smart and 'different' from the others. The bully is popular, slim and exactly what all the others aspire to be. At home, the bully has been taught how to mock and belittle everything that is different from themselves. This is an ignorant bully.
The second child is being stalked. Every day at the same time a crowd gathers to watch this child get punched, kicked and humiliated. The crowd loves it. The bully loves it. During the day the bully stretches out a foot just to watch this child fall over. The anticipation of knowing that at the end of the day a real 'event' will occur is enough to keep the bully empowered, the crowd coming back and the child afraid. It's also enough to ensure that this won't stop. At least, not on it's own.
Next we meet the child being bullied by another who feels stronger and more powerful because of the disconnection to reality that the internet affords. They have not been taught how to interact online. They have not been shown the dangers of making an insidious and nasty comment in a place where everyone can see it. This bully has a friend and together they are being spiteful in cyberspace. The hurt the bullied child feels is invisible to them both and the tears remain unseen. This enables the bullies to continue to push and to cross the line, until the line is so blurry nobody can see it anymore.
The last child is being bullied by the worst kind of bully. This bully is an adult. Raising a child who is hurting on the outside and hurting on the inside, and it's all their fault. The bully is seen by the world as the quiet one. The one nobody really notices. The invisible one. The bully was once the first child. Hiding in the library from the taunts, the jeers and the laughter. Now the bullied is the bully. The powerless child has become an adult with too much control. Will anyone notice what is going on before it's too late?
Teachers are doing courses all of the time on how to understand childhood labels. They are now much better equipped to deal with children with ADD, ASD, ADHD, learning disorders, speech impediments, and the list goes on. While the teachers are learning all of this, bullies are running the schools.
Some are acting out right in front of authority but the schools are powerless. In the past two decades we have seen significant changes in the structure and workings of our schools in Australia. We have seen the teachers lose the cane, the ruler and the back of their own hand as disciplinary measures. Many will argue that this move was a good one, and I believe it was, but you can't take away one form of disipline without replacing it with another. It's a void that needs filling.
Perhaps something as simple as using exercise to wear the cheek out of them? The old fashioned 'run around the oval 20 times' trick? It's probably much more complicated than that but it needs an answer.
We have seen the child's feelings, social skills and emotional well-being become almost as important as their scholastic education. If we are looking more carefully at the child as an individual. If we are educating ourselves on the signs to look for when diagnosing a behavioural anomaly. Why are we not noticing which child is being bullied and which is the bully?
Or is the answer much more about the power of a school v's the rights of the student? A school has limited options when coping with children who bully. They can give the child detention, suspend them or expel them. It is often said that suspensions are handed out too freely and have little or no effect on the behaviour of any student.
When I went to school we had a guidance councillor. That person held a dual degree in education and psychology. I always felt that it would be better if two people had this job and one had the education aspect covered while the other dealt with the emotional bits. I still believe it would be better to separate the two. Education and the outcome of a good one is a purely scientific and unemotional topic. The inner workings of the mind, stresses and personal conflicts are about as far from emotionless as you can possibly get.
Primary School and Secondary School students should all have access to a Councillor on site. Every student should have a mandatory visit twice a year. This visit should be confidential and last approximately half an hour. Not a quick 10 minutes that will do nobody any favours. In the same way that we get our kids to the dentist and have medical check-ups yearly, the mind of our child should also get a regular 'check-up'. This process would help identify those who need further assistance. Whether they are the bully, the bullied (I refuse to call them victims) or a child who has another issue that needs addressing.
Step one is complete. You have found the child within the school who needs help. Now what? Suspend them? Expel them? That would make the school a much better environment until the next round of bullies moves in. But it would not make any real difference in the long run and just pass the problem off to another school that is just as ill-equipped to deal with it as you are.
The answer is simple, expensive and really, more of the same. Continue the counselling. For as long as it takes, as often as required and do not stop until it is accepted by all parties (parents, teachers and students) that the problem is resolved. Counsel the parents as well, and any other person that may be part of the solution.
This will fairly obviously not happen. There is already a lack of real funding for programs within schools and the chances of that changing right now are pretty slim. We will continue to roll out anti-bullying programs and make children watch videos on cyber-bullying but nobody will educate these children on what to do if you are being bullied, or even better, how to avoid bullying behaviour altogether.
Start by teaching children from age 11 how to use e-mail, SMS and Social Networking correctly. Not the trite method taught right now which basically consists of this message to parents. 'Do not allow your child to go on the Internet without you watching'.
Are they kidding? What teenager would like having an adult, even worse...their parents, watching over their shoulder while they say hello to their friends? Highly unlikely. Why can't they teach kids the real stuff? That sarcasm does not translate well in text? That sometimes it's better to just STOP writing and think some more about what you want to say? That it's not necessary to respond to a comment you don't like?
Teaching kids the etiquette of the Internet and technological gadgets is surely a necessary part of their education these days? Children as young as 7 are using devices to stay in touch so this needs to be started much earlier than high school. It's easier to learn than it is to unlearn.
Failing all of that, watch the problem escalate. Watch Australian kids reach the point where they are filming bashings, taunts, dangerous behaviour and sick rituals and placing them online for the whole world to see.......oh, wait, it's already happening. And that's what makes bullying these days so much worse than it already was. The next child who is filmed picking up a bully and throwing them on the ground after suffering abuse for half an hour may not enjoy the fact that they are splashed all over the internet, the TV networks and become the most talked about topic in public. The next child may decide that the best way to deal with all of the unwanted attention is to commit suicide....or homicide. That's why this problem needs addressing so urgently.
Parents...... As the only ones who currently have any control over our children's behaviour during any part of their day, it's up to you.
Teach your children that while much in the the world is there for the taking, it's necessary to give back, often. While the day may seem long and dark, tomorrow may be brighter, or at the very least, shorter. Compassion and empathy are not just words, they are essential parts of living well. If there is something that is hard to understand or is different from what you know, don't mock it, educate yourself. Being nice is not that hard and the consequences are much easier to live with. If there is something that is upsetting and needs to be dealt with, tell someone so that it CAN be dealt with...NOW. And lastly.....the best piece of advice my mum ever gave me.....'No matter what you do in your life, how silly you feel or how stupid your actions, I have either done it too, or have done something much worse than that. So never be afraid to tell me anything!'