Dealing with the menace of bullying effectively

Is expulsion or suspension an answer?

Exclusion is harmful and can only be justified if the bully is persistent and there is a danger of physical and mental harm to the victim(s) or damage to property. In such a case the acts of bullying could constitute criminal act if the child is of an age where they can be held liable. Exclusion is used to protect the interest of both the bully and the victim so that investigations can be completed and potential solutions considered. Schools consider that it is preferable if a parent withdraws child who is guilty of bullying, but guilt can sometimes be difficult to prove and the full circumstances of why the action took place need to be considered carefully to see if there is any mitigation. Withdrawal can allow the parent to find an alternative school.

In temporary suspension cases, schools are likely to support the student through home-schooling, so that learning can be maintained and any examinations are taken by arrangement.

How does this extreme step guarantee that the bully will not repeat such behaviour?

It does not. If the student is at the stage where permanent exclusion is seen by the school authorities as the only feasible solution, the case is so severe that there can be no such guarantee. Exclusion is the last resort and is not a rehabilitative measure. It is a measure of the failure of the system to protect the interests of both victim and bully.

In the larger scheme of things, what is an appropriate punishment for a bully?

Punishment is about retribution and is founded upon a ‘pay back’ approach to the problem, i.e. focusing on the act, rather than dealing with the needs of both victim and bully. Possible temporary exclusion for reflection, followed by a set of real community service projects which are not demeaning but offers a real sense of achievement and responsibility. This should also be linked to counselling and restorative justice sessions. In some cases the Student Council can be a part of developing a solution.

What is the role of parents in this matter? How does the family deal with a child who is bullying others?

It is difficult for parents to be anything other than protective and defensive of their own child. Taking up an adversarial position often worsens and deepens the conflict. Parents may consider contacting police where there is a criminal case to answer, but in most cases of school bullying, even among students old enough to have criminal liability, the impact of this can embed the problem. Parents should be counselled to work with the school and with the parents of the other party to bring about a mutually satisfactory resolution of the problem. This may, of course, include withdrawal of one of the children from the school, but this too is not a long-term solution to stop bullying. It is better to work out how relationships can move forward and for the victim(s) to feel safe and supported. The consequences of bullying need to be clear and agreed by all parties. If this is not possible then they can be imposed, but this becomes part of a Behaviour Contract which may need to be in place if exclusion is to be avoided. A Behaviour Contract can be in force for an agreed minimum period, e.g. a term, or for one full year. Once completed the student’s record remains for an agreed maximum, which is probably no more than one additional year without incident.

Finally, in an era where content is constantly shared on social media, how does this impact bullying behaviour? In this particular case, when the video goes viral, and there’s a multitude of comments online that calls for their own versions of justice? Is this healthy? How can schools educate children on the impact and repercussions of uploading content on social media?

Social media has become a way of bullying at a distance. Cyber bullying which can take various forms, including blackmail, can effectively hide intimidation unless the victim feels confident enough to inform parent, teacher or trusted friend. Again, shining a light on online bullying, harassment or ‘grooming’ is the start of resolving the problem.

School communities, particularly parents groups need to be careful that contributing to online and radio chats about what constitutes ‘justice’ in viral cases, is not contributing more to a media frenzy rather than cool-headed consideration of the causes and impact.  Armchair solutions are rarely solutions at all and only add fuel to fire.

The media considers that the reporting of such incidents is in the public interest and they are careful to write that the evidence ‘appears to show’, but this is in fact a veiled accusation and irresponsible reporting can be harmful to all parties. There are guidelines available to schools that can be published in their communities to provide counselling to both students and parents.  Schools should have an anti-bullying policy which includes cyber-bullying and include advice on what to do when confronted by harmful online communications.

Zubair Ahmad heads the Operations of Goldline Group Of Companies, UAE. He is currently leading the Education Division (Springdales School, Dubai) of the group.