The Terror In Our Schoolyards
You get it for being Jewish
Get it for being black
Get it for being chicken
Get it for fighting back
You get it for being big and fat
Get it for being small
O those who get it get it and get it
For any damn thing at all.
The words of this poem by Adrian Mitchell graphically describe what it is probably one of the most underrated problems in our schools today.
As a teacher, I have witnessed the fear and distress of those who fall victim to the bullying behaviour of others. The distress of the individual is not the end of the story. There is also the accompanying detrimental effect on schoolwork and the subsequent failure to reach full potential.
While all of us are aware that the problem exists, most of us fail to recognise the extent to which the problem has developed and continues to grow. It is the scourge of our schoolyards and efforts must be made to halt it in its tracks. In this society as we struggle to emerge from years of conflict, we must not ignore how the effects of living in the shadow of violence has manifested itself in the school community. Of course it could never be suggested that the troubles are the sole reason why bullying exists in our schools. What we must recognise however, is that research has indicated that children who live in an atmosphere of violence are more likely to repeat the behaviour in their own peer groups.
The fact then that the problem has reached epidemic proportions in this society is obviously no coincidence. This then is not simply a problem for our schools to solve but one for the whole community in which each school is based.
It should be a basic entitlement of all children and young people to receive their education free from humiliation, oppression and abuse. The fact that education is compulsory means that if we fail to address the issue we are effectively condemning the victims of aggressive behaviour to a daily torment. This can lead to withdrawal from the whole school process and truants then themselves fall foul of the system and are regarded as the wrongdoer instead of the victim. Of course in the most extreme cases, many victims feel that they cannot continue and attempt to end their life.
It is a sad fact of life that many of them succeed to do just that, they are victims not only of the bullies but also of the system that failed to protect them. We must face hard facts and recognise that this is a problem we have failed to control. All to often, bullying is regarded as an inevitable part of growing up and that it somehow equips us to deal with the hardships of life.
These attitudes must be exposed and condemned. Few of us will ever experience anything like the trauma that is encountered by many in our schools in our adult lives. As stated by Adrian Mitchell in his poem,
"Heard a deep voice talking, it had that iceberg sound;
‘It prepares them for life’
but I have never found
Any place in my life that’s worse than the killing ground
Few memories of childhood can be as powerful as that of the school bully, lurking, teasing, threatening, and doing whatever is necessary to torment their victim. The effect of persistent bullying makes children and young people fell isolated and wondering if somehow it must be their own fault. Peers, while perhaps not actually supporting the bully, will withdraw from the victim for a fear of risking the bullies’ attention on themselves. This has the effect of causing the victim to feel that they deserve such treatment. As a result, they do not seek help and suffer in silence. The problem therefore goes unreported and is left to deepen and develop to an unacceptable level. It is a sad fact for us to admit that such a situation exists for many of our schools and sometimes it is much easier to deny the problem rather than to put measures in place to deal with it effectively.
The main reason for dealing with the bully issue must of course be first and foremost to end the suffering of the victims but we must also think of those who are responsible for this behaviour. Research has indicated that those who bully are more likely to be convicted of serious crimes in adult life. Aggressive children grow up to be violent parents and citizens. It is clear then that it is too simplistic to regard this as a childhood problem. The effects are carried over into adulthood for both victims and offenders with often very serious consequences. Female bullies often grow up to be mothers of bullies as their children repeat their aggressive behaviour. Bullying is often a direct result of low self-esteem but in turn produces low self-esteem in victims. It is time to end this cycle in order to create a better society for all.
As already suggested, this should not be thought of as simply a problem for individual schools to deal with. The school should however have clear strategies in place in order to combat bullying. An ethos, which does not tolerate the oppression of one person by another, should be created.
To do this there should be a whole school approach via the curriculum and especially a well-developed pastoral care programme. Advice and guidance needs to be provided for all - parents, pupils, school staff and governors. Parents must be in no doubt that their concerns will be addressed at the school level.
All schools will have an anti-bullying policy but sadly many will attempt to deny that bullying takes place for fear of gaining a bad reputation in the ever-increasing competitive atmosphere that exists in our education system today. Bullying can be tackled if we work together and break down the wall of silence that surrounds the issue. Surely we owe it to our children to do nothing less.
Got a mother and father, they’re a thousand miles away
The rulers of the Killing Ground are coming out to play
Everyone is thinking: who are they going to play with today?
Carolyn Howarth is a schoolteacher and current chair of the Carrickfergus Branch, Progressive Unionist Party.