During the holidays Marie Bentham cried as she told her family of the relentless bullying she had endured at school. It was not the first time Marie had suffered in this way and her concerned mother had already contacted the school which had followed its bullying policy and fully investigated the incidents. The bullying had not stopped. The day before school was to resume, Marie flatly refused to go back. Her mother was unsure how to deal with the situation and sent Marie to bed convinced that children must go to school. Eight-year-old Marie Bentham strangled herself with her skipping rope that night – it was her only way to ensure she would never have to face those bullies again.
Marie Bentham’s is the youngest recorded suicide connected with bullying but it is far from being the only one. In their book Bullycide Neil Marr and Tim Field recount story after story of bully-induced misery and terror which drove children to suicide. Australia is far from immune from this phenomenon. The recent case of Aimee Jenkinson is only unique in the amount of media attention it has received. Australian bullying expert, Dr Ken Rigby’s research indicates that 50% of Australian school children have experienced bullying and that one in six is bullied each week. 1 One researcher has found that Australia has one of the worst bullying records. 2
Bullying may be verbal, physical, psychological, sexual or consist of ostracism. A new kind of bullying has recently emerged: mobile phone harrassment. Bullying occurs in four main places (in order of frequency) – the playground, the classroom, on the way home from school and on the way to school. 3 Physical injuries include bruises, black eyes, broken bones, internal injuries, scarring, damaged testicles and kidneys, stabbings, being blinded in one eye, severe beatings, being strung upside down in toilets and almost drowning, being thrown down cliffs into water and pushed onto the road in front of oncoming traffic, being raped or having objects inserted into various orifices. In addition to this, bullying increases anxiety and depression, decreases learning abilities and causes lowered immunity. 4
There is a growing body of international research which shows bullying is widespread and that the violence level is increasing. An English study by Kidscape has revealed that whilst physical bullying between girls up until twenty years ago generally ended at hair pulling, it has risen since the mid 1980′s to far more physical violence including being stabbed, kicked in the head, having stones thrown, broken bones, being deliberately knocked down by cyclists, and other injuries requiring hospitalisation. 5
Being bullied causes children to feel scared, sad, lonely, confused, embarrassed, sick, stupid, depressed, reluctant to go out, isolated, angry, ashamed, tired and unsafe. 6 They wake each morning knowing they have to go to school, knowing that the bullies are there waiting to torment, humiliate and hurt them. Most children believe that bullying can not be stopped. Whilst many of these emotions and effects are still dismissed or explained away by those who believe that ‘a little pushing and shoving’ will help children develop into stronger adults, evidence of bully-induced suicides and the research into the long-term effects of bullying are irrefutable.
Some of the long-term effects of bullying are anxiety, headaches, nausea, ulcers, sleeplessness, lack of confidence, isolation, low self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashes of anger and hostility. A Swedish study found that a group of 23-year-old adults who had been consistently bullied as children were, in some ways, still affected by their experience. It was found they had lower self-esteem and were more likely to be depressed than their non-bullied counterparts. 7
A retrospective survey of over 1000 adults assessed the effects of bullying on later life. It showed that school bullying not only affects people’s self-esteem as adults but also their ability to make friends, succeed in education and in work and in social relationships. Nearly half (46%) of those who were bullied had contemplated suicide compared with only 7% of those who had not been bullied. The majority of the adults reported feeling angry and bitter about the bullying they had suffered as children. 8
Despite all this, many people are unaware of the extent and seriousness of bullying. They regard bullying as a minor issue, and violence by a child to another child is often written off – “kids will be kids” or “just sorting out the pecking order”. This attitude does not recognise the sheer misery and powerlessness that children who are being bullied suffer. Some people believe that bullying teaches children to stand up for themselves but on the contrary bullying is destructive, humiliating and abusive, not character-forming.
Most targets of bullying are perceived to be different in some way – too fat, too thin, too clever, not clever enough, having the ‘wrong’ clothes or the ‘wrong’ colour skin but all these apparent reasons for bullying are nothing more than excuses. “The target is simply a useful object onto whom the bully can displace his or her aggression.” 9 The research shows that bullies are adept at choosing a target who will not fight them back. “Targets of bullying almost always have a low propensity to violence. Bullies sense this and recognise that the child they pick on is not going to turn around and thump them. Should that happen, the cowardly side of the bully reveals itself; the bully runs straight to teacher for protection before returning to feed on easier prey.” 10
“To overcome their innate cowardice, bullies may form gangs. Some children are happy to join in and indulge their taste for violence; other children join in for justified fear of otherwise becoming a target.” 11 Bullies and their supporters know their behaviour is wrong. In group bullying situations, most would probably prefer not to have to act as they do but the bully or bullies at the centre have no qualms.
Instances of bullying dismissed by adults as trivial can fundamentally undermine a child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem. The local council who looked into the bullying of Marie Bentham said, “There was nothing to raise any serious concerns.” When these words were written, Marie was already dead. The cases of children who have committed suicide suggest that there is no safe or trivial level of bullying, but victims bullied for a year or more are six times more likely to contemplate or commit suicide and four times more likely to suffer lifelong lack of self-esteem. In some ways, psychiatric injury resulting from verbal or psychological abuse is more damaging than physical injury, which leaves visual evidence which is hard to deny.
Bullying has always been a problem in schools. It first came to public attention with the publication of Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857 which is said to have been closely modelled on the author’s own school experience. In fact “wherever institutionalised schooling has been established, bullying occurs and broadly speaking and despite cultural differences, many of the features are the same.” 12
The extent of bullying varies from school to school. Olweus (1993) reported that in some schools the extent of bullying was four or five times higher than in another school in the same community. School ‘bullying policies’ are unable to prevent bullying. The great majority of bullying is not reported to teachers or noticed by them. A Canadian study videotaped children playing in a schoolyard and found that teachers were aware of only 17% of the bullying observed by the researchers. Of the incidents they did see, they only chose to intervene 23% of the time which gave an overall intervention rate of 3.9%. 13 “The most common responses of schools to allegations of bullying are either to deny it or to take ineffective action which makes the bullying worse.” 14 After one girl committed suicide, the school went so far as to claim that her diary entries telling of the bullying she had suffered were part of an English assignment. 15 In the case of Kirsty Wilson who was dragged from her wheelchair and had her brittle legs jumped on, the school denied she had been bullied and implied that she herself was a bully! 16 “All too often complaints of bullying put forward by pupils and parents are dismissed; assertions of looking out, investigation and action are rarely supported by evidence.”17 Even when schools are aware of bullying and follow their policies, there is no guarantee that the bullying will stop. In Marie Bentham’s case the school reportedly took the complaints ‘very seriously’, ‘investigated them fully’ and ‘dealt with them promptly’. In many of the Bullycide stories schools were able to present documentation that showed they had followed their policies to the letter and yet the children’s misery had been unalleviated. Sometimes teachers quell the obvious bullying but do not notice the more devious bullying which replaces it. “Sometimes when teachers do intervene, the outcome is not successful. There are many reasons for this, some of which are the teacher’s responsibilities. Failure is most frequent when teachers respond irresolutely and half-heartedly to a problem that needs to be thoroughly followed through. This may be because they do not fully understand what bullying is, or are swayed by the deceit and lies that are a part of the bullying culture.” 18 Indeed schools are such a fine breeding ground for bullies that teachers too suffer from bullying. “Schools by their nature, attract some people who bully,” reported The Education Age which noted 40 per cent of school services officers have been bullied by other staff. 19 A good deal of bullying takes place inside the classroom with secondary school children describing it as the place where they are most likely to be bullied. 20 Teachers also bully children with one 70 year old woman recalling her bullying maths teacher so vividly that she only has to see a column of numbers to ‘break into a cold sweat.’ 21 Although officially condemned, bullying is an unavoidable fact of school life. Schools which claim to have no bullying are regarded by researchers as ‘bullying black-spots”. Australian expert, Evelyn Field believes that ‘under optimal conditions bullying can be reduced by up to fifty per cent’ but that it ‘cannot be eradicated’. 22
Several studies have shown that when children report bullying there is a low chance of help (as low as 7%) and a significant (29%) likelihood that the situation will be made worse. Most children do talk about their problem but fear of speaking out and of repercussions rises with the child’s age. 23
Many anti-bullying books urge parents to teach their children self-respect, assertive skills and how to make friends in order to ‘bully-proof’ themselves but all these things are much easier to read of than to achieve, and are especially difficult to work on with a child already labouring under the stress of bullying. As Keith Sullivan points out: “To suggest that people who are being bullied should stand up for themselves is not only unfair, it is also unrealistic. If they could have stood up for themselves, they would not have been bullied, and the bullying undermines any vestiges of strength they had.” 24
Children need to learn skills which will enable them to cope with bullies in later life but school is not the best environment in which to learn those skills. “The education culture highlights the difference between children who are aggressive and those who are not. Rewards and distinctions tend to go the former,” say Marr and Field. Children absorb values, beliefs and morals from those around them. They can learn these more effectively in the safe environment of their home and naturally widening social circle as they grow older. Ideally their parents will model assertive behaviour and conflict resolution skills in their interaction with others and family relationships offer endless opportunities to practice these skills. Children can learn to confidently communicate and stand up for their point of view in a supportive and safe environment. This is far superior to a school situation where bullying is endemic and the whole system is based on power and control. Some experts claim that children who are targeted by bullies tend to come from families where the parents are not assertive. They might argue that home education would only compound their problems by protecting them from exposure to bullying behaviour at school leaving them unable to defend themselves from bullies as adults. It seems an odd solution to condemn children to years of bullying abuse and the long-term effects just so they can learn to deal with it! The Kidscape survey concluded that ‘contrary to popular opinion, bullying does not help children to cope better with adult life. In fact it has the opposite effect. Adults who were bullied as children tend to have problems with self-esteem, feelings of anger and bitterness, suicidal thoughts and attempts and difficulty relating to people. Many were afraid of new situations and easily victimised.” 25 Surely children brought up in their own safe homes and treated with respect will be in a healthier frame of mind to deal with adult aggressors when they meet them.
Bullying, together with school violence, is now one of the major reasons Americans choose to home educate and it has also become a more common reason for withdrawing children from school in Australia. Sadly many parents who do know about home education have been brainwashed to believe children must go to school. Many think that removing their child from school would be the ruin of them. The state has taken complete control over generations of children for so long that parents’ natural instincts and confidence in rearing their own children has been completely eroded. They have been schooled to hand any problems they are having over to ‘experts’ and then to do what that ‘expert’ tells them often to the detriment of their own child. Families are showing their capacity to see the truth: Bullying is an inevitable part of school culture. If Marie Bentham’s mother had known about home education, Marie could still be alive.
1 Rigby, K. What Harm Does Bullying Do? 1999
2 Slee, Phillip of Flinders University quoted in Bullying and Youth Violence, The Spinney Press p20
3 Sullivan, K The Anti-Bullying Handbook, Oxford University Press, 2000 p29
4 Rigby, K. Consequences of Bullying in Schools 2003
5 Kidscape Survey:Long Term Effects of Bullying 1999 p5
8 Kidscape Survey www.kidscape.org.uk
9 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim Bullycide: Death At Playtime, Success Unlimited 2001 p258
10 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p24
11 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p24
12 Smith and Morita 1999 quoted in Sullivan p 17
13 Sullivan, K p 86
14 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p256
15 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p 144
16 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p 227-8
17 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p 73
18 Sullivan, K p 86
19 The Victims in the Staffroom, The Education Age, June 21 2004
20 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p 138
21 Kidscape Survey www.kidscape.org.uk
22 Field, Evelyn Bully Busting , Finch Publishing 1999
23 Marr, Neil & Field, Tim p 146
24 Sullivan, K p 36
25 Kidscape Survey p9