By Annan Boodram
An article in the Guyana media entitled Mom arrested after pepper-spraying students bullying her daughter raised a number of issues. The article indicated that a child was being bullied by other students but “according to a police rank who was at the scene of the incident, he did not make any attempt to intervene as he claimed that it was ‘against the law’ for him to arrest juveniles”.
So what then is the role of the police in situations like this? Suppose one of the bullies had pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed the victim (which actually happened last month in Guyana) with the police officer merely watching on, what then? Just what exactly does ensuring ‘law and order’ entail in situations like this?
Secondly, the mother was arrested for attempting to protect her child by pepper-spraying the bullies. Was she supposed to, like the police officer, simply stand by and witness her child being brutalized? What are her legal options to protect her child in such a situation?
Finally, according to an aunt of the victim, the school claims “they can’t do anything when dem [alleged bullies] beating my niece on the road”. But doesn’t a school have responsibility as long as the student is in school uniform, in or out of school? In any case, why has the school not been doing anything even when the victim was bullied in school?
This speaks to a lack of any concerted anti-bullying plan in schools, not only in Guyana but throughout the Caribbean. The Caribbean Voice urges education ministers and authorities to consider that bullying can affect everyone—those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. Thus, the critical need for anti-bullying plans and campaigns in all schools on an ongoing basis; a one-off effort would be a waste of time. And while such campaigns are being crafted, where not yet implemented, counsellors should be placed in schools as an initial measure.
A very small number of bullied children might retaliate through extremely violent measures. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the US in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.
Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. Kids who bully are more likely to:
• Abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults
• Get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school
• Engage in early sexual activity
• Have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults
• Be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults
Kids who witness bullying are more likely to:
• Have increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
• Have increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
• Miss or skip school
Last September, UNICEF reported that 51 per cent of students are being bullied in schools globally. Empirical and anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that this figure is much higher in schools in the Caribbean.
Teachers often underestimate how much bullying is occurring at their schools since they see only about four per cent of bullying incidents. Victims only report to school adults one-third of the time, usually when the bullying occurs repeatedly or causes injury. Parents tend to be aware their child is being bullied only about half the time.
In fact, parents of a bullied child once disclosed to this writer, “We never noticed the signs because we were neither aware of them nor did we ever think that our child would be bullied at school. And because he didn’t want to ‘snitch’, he never told us about this. But one episode was brought to our attention and then we learnt about the years of bullying. At first the school administration dismissed it, as ‘boys will be boys’. Then a message was given to them: address this issue now and ensure that the bullying stops or you will hear from our lawyer. The bullying stopped.”
The message is very clear. Parents have to be proactive in helping their children to deal with bullying and in the process become anti-bullying advocates and activists. And to be effective in helping their children, parents must also be in constant touch with their children’s schools and teachers and must learn how to notice the signs of bullying and how to get their children to talk about it.
Symptoms (physical, psychological, mental) experienced by victims of bullying may include headaches, stomachaches, bedwetting, dizziness, changes in appetite, and general aches and pains, stress, irritability, sadness, trouble sleeping, frequent nightmares, tiredness in the mornings, loneliness, helplessness, feelings of isolation and anxiety or depression, which, if not treated sometimes results in suicide.
Victims of bullying may exhibit behavioral symptoms as well, like avoiding social situations, getting to school or work late, taking more days off, skipping school without telling parents, or even trying to retaliate against their tormentors. Their grades may decline and they may become self-destructive (for example, run away from home, hurting themselves or contemplating suicide).
People who were bullied as children are at risk for having less of a supportive social network during adulthood, poorer physical and financial health, more antisocial behavior, and be more likely to become young parents. Victims of workplace bullying may suffer from reduced job performance, more absences, and less work satisfaction.
Risk factors for bullying include having a low understanding of emotional or social interactions; suffering from a mental, physical or learning disability or being otherwise different: overweight, underweight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and so on. Signs that may indicate that a child is being bullied include missing belongings, unexplained injuries, and a limited number of friends.
If parents think their child is being bullied, they should be calm, supportive and reassuring. Create a climate that helps victims feel comfortable enough to talk about it and let them know that they are not to blame. Try to gain details about the circumstances of the bullying and who is involved and teach the children how to assertively respond to being bullied. Contact the school and seek its help in alleviating the bullying, while at the same time, understand that school personnel are often unaware that bullying is occurring and children may fear reprisals for having school authorities alerted.
Victims may find it helpful to stay with other students and a teacher, so the bully has fewer opportunities to engage in the behavior. They may also benefit from engaging in activities that can improve their confidence, self-esteem, and overall emotional strength, whether it be sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. Engaging in such activities can also help the children create and strengthen friendships and improve their social skills.
Professional help – psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) prescribing psychiatric medication – is necessary to help victims cope with the emotional turmoil.
It must also be pointed out that those in positions of authority and in charge of shaping policies must be very circumspect with their public outpourings relating to bullying, which can and does often transform into abuse.
In November last year, Guyana’s Minister of Education, Nicolette Henry, in response to a question from the media, relating to an incident in which a female student was beaten up by a male student, stated, “Well, usually students fight. It’s nothing unusual as you would know, you’ve gone to school yourselves and we all would’ve seen…” The fact is that a male student beating a female student is not about ‘usually students’ fight’ and when a Minister of Education so casually dismisses this level of bullying and abuse, one must begin to question her competence for that particular position.
The Caribbean Voice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or via What’s App at 646-461-0574 and 592-664 1152. Please contact us so we can help you help yourself or your loved ones or to become involved in our abuse and suicide prevention mission.