School forms the most significant socialising space for children. When bullying is a common phenomenon in this very special space, it becomes a harmful breeding ground. Bullying is a serious issue and abuse of human rights, yet, ignorance and tolerance towards it makes this menace continue to thrive in our schools. This is a research article which aims at conscientising the society about its nature and harmful impact and the role social agencies need to play in eradicating it. The writer interacted with 236 students of classes 9 and 10, between the ages of 13 and 16, of the five major schools of Pfutsero, and collected data on their bullying experience through close-ended questions. A few former victims of bullying from Pfutsero were interviewed as well.
What is bullying?
The Encyclopaedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention defines bullying as, “a repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons.” At the heart of bullying is a power imbalance – whether perceived or actual – of social status, gender, wealth, physical strength or size.
Referring to bullying in schools, UNESCO stated that “school related violence in all forms is an infringement of children and adolescents’ rights to education and to health and well-being.”
Forms of bullying
School bullying takes different forms including verbal, physical, psychological and emotional. The most commonly understood and easily identifiable form of bullying is physical and/or verbal. Physical bullying can involve kicking, shoving, hitting, abuse of personal belongings, inappropriate touching, etc. Verbal bullying involves foul language and inappropriate comments directed at the victim, threatening, body-shaming, name-calling, etc. Psychological and emotional bullying is more subtle and harder to detect, but involves one or more forms of relational aggression, including social isolation via intentional exclusion, manipulation, spreading rumours to defame one’s character, social attacks on someone’s reputation, making obscene gestures behind someone’s back, and manipulating friendships or other relationships. This type of bullying can be emotionally and mentally destructive, but frequently undetected by parents and teachers.
Out of 236 respondents, 159 of them (67%) responded having faced bullying in school. 45% confirmed they faced verbal bullying, 27% physical bullying, 10% psychological and emotional bullying, another 10% both verbal and physical bullying, while 8% suffered all forms of bullying.
55% of the victims experienced bullying between classes 1-5, 38% of them between classes 6-10, 4% from classes 1-10, and 2% while in their nursery classes. Responding on the frequency of experiencing bullying, 17% opined to have experienced almost every day for years, 50% suffered many times, and 33% a few times.
Who are bullies?
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘bully’ as “a person who uses their strength or power to frighten or hurt weaker people”. Bullies are persons who habitually seek to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable. Bullies have a perceived authority over others due to factors such as size, gender, age, circumstances, privileges, etc. They bully as a show of strength to undermine or degrade someone’s dignity with possible intentions of gaining or maintaining power.
71% of the bullies are the victim’s classmates, 17% are their seniors, while 12% are their teachers.
The constant negative comments passed on a student’s inability, disability, or state, is a facet of bullying by teachers in school. When teachers, who are supposed to be nurturers, consciously or unconsciously take the role of bullies, it creates a graver impact not only on the victim, but on the bully and the entire witness of the act. Observation or experience of such behaviour can either cause a child to feel that it is okay to be bullied or that it is okay to bully.
Parents may become bullies if they constantly demean their children and are violent with them. Exposure to violent behaviour, lack of social values and parental monitoring can create bullies and victims as well.
Who are the victims?
Victims of bullying tend to be physically weaker, more sensitive, quiet, withdrawn, lacking confidence, having a disability, being of a minority race or religion, or different in any way. Possessing these qualities makes these individuals vulnerable, as they are seen as being unlikely to retaliate.
61% of the victims think they were bullied because of their physical appearance, 23% because of their poor family background, 10% because they were weak academically, and 6% think they were bullied because of they being from a minority group.
Impact of bullying
Bullying can become a source of trauma for children and young adults, and haunt them their whole lives. It often leads to low self-esteem, mental distress and depression, personality disorders, adverse effect on work, relationships and other trying life situations, and in extreme situations, even suicide. While most bullies grow up to be emotionally functional adults, many have an increased risk of developing antisocial personality disorder, which is linked to an increased risk of committing criminal acts, including domestic violence. People with this disorder have little empathy and no ethics about manipulating others for selfish gain.
Some symptoms of a child being bullied may include: unexplainable injuries, anxiety and stress, lost or destroyed clothing/belonging, changes in eating habits, declining health/grades, refusal to go to school, the child changes route to school or is afraid of walking/taking the bus to school, often alone or excluded from friendship groups at school, unable to speak up in class, and appears insecure or frightened, becoming overly apologetic, self-harm, and suicidal ideations. In the long run, they may lack trust, exhibit extreme sensitivity, develop mental and health illnesses, and also vent out their frustration through vengeful acts and even become bullies themselves.
27% of the victims confessed they responded to their bullies by bullying them back, while 12% skipped school in order to avoid the bully, and 55% felt bad about themselves and cried. Only 6% claimed to have been unaffected by it.
Harry (all interviewees’ names are pseudonyms), who works in a student ministry recounted, “Childhood was tough as I went through bullying every single day at school. Having visible physical differences and health complications, I was bullied for not being the same with others. It affected my self-esteem and confidence so severely that it still keeps haunting me when people laugh in my presence.” Sophia, a teacher, lamented that years of bullying by peers and teachers in school had shattered her self-esteem. She nearly dropped out of school if not for her persistent parents. She believes she was bullied for multiple reasons: being academically poor, belonging to a minority group and poor family background. William, who is a church minister today, recounted that he was severely bullied – verbally and physical, by his teachers for not doing well in studies. He survived school with the vengeful motive of getting back at them some day. He recalled that one of his classmates dropped out of school for the same reason. Thus, he pointed out bullying can destroy one’s career and life itself.
Role of Social Agencies in Stopping Bullying
Prevention starts with awareness. 59% of the victims did not report about being bullied to anyone because they were not aware bullying was an offence and thought others would think of them as being prissy. Only 19% reported the matter to either their parents/school/friends, while the rest chose to keep silent due to fear of the bullying getting worse (41%). William pointed out that he never dared to report about teachers bullying him due to fear of graver consequences from them. Sophia stopped reporting to the teachers because after her first report and the consequent whipping of the bully, she was tormented more severely by the bully.
Uprooting bullying from school is possible only when everyone is cognizant about its nature and harmful effects, and takes wise steps to tackle it. Psychologists have proven that the environment a child is born into and grows from can strongly shape his/her personality and character. Thus, social institutions like the family, school, church, etc. have equally important roles to play in understanding and curbing bullying.
- Role of Family: Family is the first school a child is born into. It is the seed from where an individual’s attitude towards and perception of others, problems, joys, and life itself are formed. Thus, parents and elders should create peaceful, healthy, and educative environment at home through example. They should show interest and care in their children’s life by spending quality time, paying attention to changes in their behaviour, asking questions with cheerful curiosity rather than anxiety, receiving their sharing in a calm and respectful way, and thanking them for sharing. Respect and appreciation for differences, and kindness and empathy towards everyone should be inculcated from home.
- Role of Schools: Schools should provide an emotionally and physically safe environment. Awareness programmes like International Day Against Violence and Bullying at School, and activities such as presentations about identifying and reporting bullying, use of arts and crafts to build understanding of its effects, teaching bystanders how and when to help, and talks on peer relations, etc. should be held. Teachers can intervene by using authority-based interventions, non-punitive approaches, and by involving counsellors or professionals. All schools should intently follow guidelines similar to that given by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), in 2015, for all its affiliated schools: To form Anti-Bullying Committees consisting of the Vice Principal, a senior teacher, a doctor, a trained counsellor, parent-teacher representative, legal representative, and peer educators; to put a notice on display board warning students of the consequences of bullying, and to give written warning and even impose rustication on the bullies. The NEP 2020’s policy of providing counsellor in every school in India should be taken seriously, and all schools follow suit.
- Role of Church: The Church is a powerful institution. All the three interviewees affirmed it was the new identity they found through their faith that helped them overcome the trauma caused by bullying.
Thus, the Church should take keen initiative in engraining the equal identity each believer has received through Christ. Sunday Schools should consistently and creatively make the children understand the fact that each of them, irrespective of their differences in physical, linguistic, ethnicity, family background, gender, etc., they are equally special and loved because they are all created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139:14; Ephesians 2:10); that Christ died for everyone (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; Romans 10:13); and that despite their varied gifts, each gift comes from the same Spirit and are equally important (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12). When this beautiful truth is taught and engrained in the minds and hearts of children, they will learn to value themselves and others, and appreciate each other.
Bullying is neither a myth nor a harmless, inevitable, part of growing up. It is a common phenomenon in schools and acutely harmful to life. If we do not confront it, it will continue to be normalised and left untreated; encouraging our innocent children to indulge in it as perpetrators, victims, and complacent bystanders. Thus, sensitivity and wisdom are required on the part of each one of us as we confront a grave hindrance to the building of a healthy, peaceful, and just world.
Baptist Theological College