I’ve just finished watching BBC 3’s excellent documentary ‘Can’t Be Bullied’. It came at the end of ‘anti-bullying’ week. The kids featured all had horrific stories to tell, and these were echoed regularly last week on radio phone-ins and online forums: a Year 6 student student being repeatedly tied to school railings with a knife held to her neck; teenagers being regularly beaten up on their way home from school. If these incidents were happening to adults, in, or going to, work, there would be headlines every week. School bullying gets a national focus for just one week.
We should be ashamed of our tolerance of school bullying. Consider its endemic proportions, and this despite countless well-intentioned initiatives and campaigns. Half of Welsh year 6 students have been bullied in the past year, and 43% of English 14-year olds surveyed claim to have been bullied recently. We’re not unique in the UK – this is a global phenomenon – happening in every town, in every country and on every social media network,
But you have to go beyond the statistics, into the personal tragedies, to get the the shame which lies behind school bullying.
The tragic case of 15 year-old Tom Mullaney, who hanged himself earlier this year after prolonged social network bullying, is, sadly, not an isolated incident. Tom received online death threats the night before he hung himself. According to a study from Yale University, victims of bullying are up to 9 times more likely to consider suicide. it’s claimed that, in Britain, half of all suicides among young people are linked to bullying. There’s even a new term which seeks to ensure that such tragedies are not without known attribution: Bullycide. The campaign group Beatbullying, with the support of the News of The World, has launched ‘Never Again‘ – a fundraising campaign to provide young people with a peer cyber mentor who can provide support before they reach the verge of contemplating suicide.
I have to confess a personal interest (and shame) here. Both of my sons were bullied at their perfectly respectable high school. Ten years on, one of them still finds it impossible to talk about specific incidents, and both dropped out of formal education as soon as they were legally allowed to (a high proportion of NEETS have been bullied). My shame is that I didn’t spot the signs, and resisted their periodic resistance to going in to school. However, even if I had let them stay off, the odds would have been stacked against me – keeping a child at home due to bullying is considered to be an unauthorised absence.
The shame of bullying is widely held. Parents feel shame, as I still do, and the victims invariably feel ashamed. A striking feature of the parents whose testimonies were featured last week, was the number who claimed that they reported it to school leaders, who then failed to act, and for that, they should feel shame – but not without some mitigation.
In researching the apparent reluctance of schools to make bullies legally accountable for their actions, I came across the Crown Prosecution Service advice on school bullying: ‘Prosecution may not be necessary because of other available alternatives, but there will be cases in which a prosecution is needed in the public interest (but not, apparently in the interest of the victim) …..If school bullying incidents are regularly referred for prosecution (particularly if they are often appropriate for reprimands or final warning), it may well be necessary for the AYJC/local CPS to contact the local police department and the YOT responsible for youth offender cases with a view to them examining the policies of the local schools and the police.’ It’s little wonder that, faced with such scrutiny, a school, and its police liaison officer, will try to keep the bullying problems hidden.
The sad truth is that all the school anti-bullying policies, and all the campaigns, projects and resource packs have made no difference to the amount of bullying taking place in schools. A much stronger message needs to be sent to the bullies and the kids who get bullied: it’s against the law and will be prosecuted accordingly.
Can’t Be Bullied has an uplifting ending showing that, with help, bullying victims can return to mainstream schooling. But, that’s not the point: Globally, we’re not doing enough to stop bullying from happening in the first place. Encouraging schools to report, and prosecute – free from the fear of being bullied themselves – seems to be the only option we haven’t yet tried .