In march 2000 an honour-roll student named Hamed Nastoh jumped off the Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster, B.C. Hamed, 14, left a seven-page note that said he was killing himself because his classmates tormented him with names like gay or faggot. He had never told his mother he was being bullied.
A few months later, on November 10, another 14-year-old, Dawn-Marie Wesley of Mission, B.C., hanged herself with a dog leash in her bedroom. She too left a note for her family. It read: “If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up, and they are the toughest girls.
If I ratted, there would be no stopping them. I love you all so much!”
Most Canadians remember the tragic 1997 murder of Reena Virk, a high-school student whose battered body was recovered from the Gorge Waterway, near Victoria. Her head and internal organs had been severely damaged by a beating that rendered her senseless before she was deliberately drowned. One girl and a boy were convicted of second-degree murder, and six girls were found guilty of aggravated assault. Her death is an example of bullying taken to its ultimate expression. But even in its mildest everyday forms, bullying is about one thing: the strong taking unfair advantage of the weak.
Bullying has been defined as “the tendency for some children to frequently oppress, harass or intimidate other children, verbally, physically or both, in and out of school.”
It is not the minor behaviour problems that are a part of growing up, such as horseplay, occasional good-natured teasing or even the odd physical scrap between children of equal strength.
The most common form is name-calling. Children call others names for many reasons: because the other child is short or fat, is of a different skin colour, or has a lisp, a stutter or a physical disability. Maybe he is a slow learner or wears clothes that differ from the run of the mill. Victims are often smaller or weaker than average, or shy and insecure.
Boys bully more than girls, and the tormenting is more often physical. Debra J. Pepler of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University has reported that 23 percent of boys surveyed said they had engaged in bullying, compared to only eight percent of girls.
Among victims, however, both genders were equally affected. With girls, bullying often takes more subtle forms, such as whispering campaigns, spreading rumours and shunning-acts designed to destroy friendships. This can be every bit as painful as physical aggression. Many parents are unaware that it is happening because they never discuss it with their kids and because bullying is often a kind of underground activity that many children won’t report.
Most bullying takes place in and around school and is often reinforced by an audience. In one study, 120 hours of video surveillance in Toronto schools showed that in over 20 percent of bullying, peers actively reinforced bullying by physically or verbally joining in the aggression. In 54 percent of cases, they reinforced the bully by watching but not joining in. In only 25 percent of cases did peers support the victim.
How common is bullying? Toronto’s Board of Education has documented that in grades 4 to 8, one child in five was victimized periodically, while one in 12 was bullied weekly or daily.
Patrick mcniven* is a happy-go-lucky seven-year-old, now in Grade 2 at a small elementary school near Halifax. His parents, Tracy and Kevin, say Patrick loves everybody and talks to everyone. But shortly after starting school last year, Tracy remembers, “Patrick started crying one night and said he didn’t want to go to school anymore.
“At first he would not tell me what the problem was. But with some coaxing, he finally revealed that an older boy from Grade 2 (‘Jimmy’) was spitting on him every morning in the bus.” When Tracy told Kevin, his first response was, “Just tell Patrick to hit that kid!”
But the following day, Tracy decided to speak to the bus driver about it. He wasn’t much help. “I can’t see everything that goes on, you know!”
The next day, the boy spat in Patrick’s face again. Tracy approached the bus driver a second time. Finally, he agreed to seat Jimmy up front, next to him. That lasted exactly one day, after which Jimmy was back to spitting on Patrick again.
In desperation, Tracy decided to speak to Jimmy’s parents. The boy’s father met her on his front doorstep. He listened for a minute, then said Patrick must have done something to deserve it. He then became belligerent. “He said it was my problem, not his-so I just walked away, thinking Jimmy’s father must have been a bully as a child, because he’s still a bully as an adult.”
Frustrated, Tracy told Patrick that if Jimmy spit on him again, he should spit right back. He did, the next morning, and Jimmy hasn’t spit on him since. Tracy admits, “I know it was probably the wrong thing to do-but I’m almost sorry I didn’t tell him to spit back from the beginning.”
What turns some children into bullies? Researchers, led by Kris Bosworth of the University of Arizona, collected information from 558 students in grades 6 to 8, then divided the students into three groups: 228 who rarely or never bullied anyone; 243 who reported a moderate level of bullying; and 87 who reported excessive amounts of bullying. Those who reported the most bullying behaviour had received more forceful, physical discipline from their parents, had viewed more TV violence and showed more misconduct at home. Thirty-two percent lived with a stepparent, and 36 percent lived in a single-parent household. Bullies generally had fewer adult role models, more exposure to gang activity and easier access to guns. This partly explains why bullies need help as much as victims: Many learn their behaviour by example.
Bullies often want people to look up to them, and they try to achieve this by acting tough. Their behaviour is usually initiated to create status for themselves. They are often unhappy in school, immature and unpopular, but other kids may associate with them out of fear rather than friendship. In some, bullying is part of an overall pattern of antisocial behaviour and rule breaking.
Many boys who have been bullies continue their style of behaviour in later life. As adults, they are at increased risk for criminality, marital violence, child abuse and sexual harassment. Beginning in 1961, Drs. Donald West and David Farrington of Cambridge University studied over 400 South London boys from ages eight to 32. They found convicted delinquents had previously tended to be troublesome and dishonest in their primary schools, only to become aggressive and frequent liars at age 12 to 14, and bullies at age 14.
Dr. Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen, Norway, an international authority on bullying, has found that 60 percent of boys identified as bullies in grades 6 to 9 had at least one court conviction by age 24. Over time, compared to the general population, they had four times more relatively serious, recidivist criminality than nonbullies.
How can you tell if your child is being bullied? Most schoolchildren won’t tell you, often because they are afraid of reprisals. But certain symptoms should make you suspicious. These include unexplained reluctance to go to school; fearfulness or unusual anxiety; sleep disturbances and nightmares; vague physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches), especially on school days; or belongings that come home ripped or are missing altogether.
If you suspect your child may be a victim, it’s best not to ask the question outright. Dr. Sarah Shea, director of the Child Development Clinic at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, suggests: “Ask your child indirectly how he or she is spending lunch hour; or what it’s like walking to school, walking home or taking the school bus. Ask if there are any children at school who are bullies, without personalizing it. And when you meet with teachers, ask how they deal with conflict when it occurs. If you are certain your child is being bullied, let the school know that you take it seriously, and ask what can be done to help.”
Some parents find it embarrassing to learn that their child is being bullied. But a few simple rules make it a lot easier to deal with:
• Be a good listener. Stay calm, and give your child plenty of time to tell you how he or she feels. Make it clear it’s not your child’s fault. Above all, don’t suggest your child simply fight back. That may increase your child’s chances of further victimization. Some children are nonaggressive by nature, and you can’t change that.
• Don’t overreact. Ask yourself, is this serious enough to discuss with the teacher? With the principal? With the police?
• Help your child avoid the situations that expose him or her to bullying. If it occurs on the way to or from school, find a safe route and arrange for an older child companion. Also, point out places the child can go for help. Finally, let the school authorities know if there is a problem, and keep a written record of incidents and who was involved.
What can a community do about bullying? Hetty van Gurp has more than 30 years experience as a teacher and school principal in Halifax. Van Gurp’s son, Ben, would be 25 years old today had his life not ended abruptly in an episode that changed her life. In 1991 Ben was an athletic Grade 9 student. He also had an uncommon condition called neurofibromatosis, which can weaken blood-vessel walls.
Another boy at school had been picking on Ben for about a year. One day in the gym, he pushed Ben to the ground. Ben collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where emergency surgery showed that the main artery that runs along the spine had been weakened by the neurofibromatsis and the force of the fall had caused it to rupture. Despite heroic efforts, he died. Ben’s death turned van Gurp to thinking about aggression in schools. With the help of colleagues, she wrote a proposal to establish an organization she called the League of Peaceful Schools.
Cindi Seddon, cofounder of Coquitlam’s Bully B’ware program, and a teacher as well as a school principal, recommends the following when your child encounters a bully:
Among criteria for membership were a discipline policy developed with input from students, staff and parents; programs that promoted positive social behaviour; and a peer-mediation and crisis-intervention plan. “It is essential,” van Gurp says, “for children to understand the difference between tattling (getting someone into trouble) and reporting (being helpful). It’s also essential that the school respond to all incidents so that children and parents realize that the school really will do something-not just sit back and make judgements.”
So far, 170 schools in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have become members, and more are joining every year.
In October 1999 the Halifax Regional Police launched Canada’s first Anti-Bullying Hotline, the brainchild of Const. Ian Burke, one of the force’s community-relations/crime-prevention co-ordinators. Burke saw that seemingly minor incidents of school-yard bullying were contributing significantly to youth violence in the community. He set up the hot line so that students, parents or teachers could speak to a police officer quickly, directly and-if they wished-anonymously.
Participating officers carry cell phones and students are provided with fridge magnets and bookmarks with the contact number. Phone calls are handled personally-never by an answering machine.
Burke and Const. Peter Myatt have now trained some 40 Halifax officers and volunteers in mediation for intervening in a bullying situation. Since its establishment, the Anti-Bullying Hotline has received close to 1,400 calls, and over the first year, some 350 individual mediation or conferencing sessions were held.
In considering a school for your child, you should ask the principal if it has an antibullying policy and, if it does, how well it works. If you are told “We don’t have that problem here,” don’t believe it. The problem exists in all schools.
School bullying is everyone’s business. It is unrealistic to expect it can be totally eliminated: We can’t eradicate the conditions that turn some children into bullies and others into targets.
But if everyone concerned-teachers, school authorities, police, parents and children-is truly committed to zero tolerance, then there is solid evidence that the amount and the severity of bullying can be reduced dramatically.
How to deal with a bullying problem
Click here to read selected questions submitted by our readers along with answers from Cindi Seddon, cofounder of Coquitlam’s Bully B’ware program, and Halifax Regional Police officer Ian Burke, who conceived of and runs an Anti-bullying Hotline.
For more information on Bullying, visit www.talk-helps.com
* The family’s names have been changed to protect privacy.
ILLUSTRATION: © GÉRARD DUBOIS