I recently finished reading Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School, a book edited by Fiona Scott-Norman that brings together 22 prominent Australians to share their experiences of being bullied during their years at school. Amongst those who contribute to the book are singers Missy Higgins, Megan Washington and Kate Miller-Heidke, television identities such as Charlie Pickering and Eddie Perfect and sports stars Hazem El Masri and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, along with politicians, authors, actors, entertainers and artists. The thing that saddened me most while reading this book is not the fact that these people were subjected to the physical and emotional torment that they experienced, but the fact that nothing has really changed. The types of attitudes and behaviours that these identities experienced remain prevalent today and young people are still finding themselves at the mercy of social ostracism, physical and/or verbal intimidation and abuse.
Despite myriad anti-bullying campaigns and programs supported by the condemnation of such behaviours from all manner of celebrities and experts, the fact remains that bullying is still rife in Australian schools. Those schools that proudly boast a zero tolerance of bullying are, at best, utterly deluded or, at worst, deliberately misleading parents, students and the broader community. Of course, proudly pronouncing a zero tolerance policy is an easy way to demonstrate a commitment to combatting bullying without actually having to do anything. It would be much better if, instead of spouting rhetoric and empty slogans, schools actually tackled the problem with a genuine commitment to protecting students, making perpetrators accountable and identifying the underlying cause of bullying behaviours. However, the best possible approach to tackling the problem would be for all education administrators to make a genuine effort to develop effective education strategies that prevent such behaviours from developing.
Despite the vastly different experiences of the various contributors to the book, there is a similarity in their stories. In almost every case, these people found themselves the target of bullies because they are, in some way, ‘different’ to the homogenous model of Australian identity that still very much dominates Australia’s social and political landscape. Sexuality, disability, ethnicity, social status and physical appearance are reasons enough for somebody to be subjected to bullying and torment. In every school in Australia today, students are being bullied and harassed for these very reasons and, in most cases, nothing will be done by education administrators. In fact, many of the experiences in this book also demonstrate that a hankering for the arts is reason enough to become a target for bullies. Such attitudes are only exacerbated when the school management marginalises arts subjects and those who study them, whilst privileging sports and other subject areas more in keeping with notions of what is typically Australian, despite the fact that the changing nature of our economy and industry suggests that more traditional skill sets are no longer relevant for an increasingly large portion of the modern workforce.
Nobody emerges from 10 to 12 years of schooling and then suddenly decides that bullying, harassment and intimidation are appropriate techniques for interacting with others. They have learned these behaviours through their entrenchment in the school system and the inability, or unwillingness, of school administrators to tackle the problem. Yes, home and family attitudes and experiences can have a significant influence on how young people think and behave, which makes it so critical that schools are doing everything they can to mitigate these influences. After all, school is about educating young people and surely this must include education around appropriate attitudes and behaviours towards others. Too many times have I heard teachers or school administrators brush aside instances of bullying with statements that are designed to lay blame with the victim, such as “He is his own worst enemy” or “He/she needs to stop being so sensitive”. Nobody deserves to be bullied, tormented or harassed, regardless of how sensitive or different they may be. I have also seen instances of bullying dismissed with comments such as “it’s just boys being boys” or “he/she should make more effort to be friends with other students”. In fact, in my experience, schools seem to commit more energy to justifying their lack of action over bullying incidents than they do to developing and implementing strategies to stop them from happening in the first place.
Of course, the mainstream media loves bullying. Violence, bullying and intimidation in our schools and amongst young people online are the types of stories on which news and current affairs programs thrive. They love nothing better than video footage of young people behaving badly, particularly footage of students scrapping in the schoolyard with a circle of cheering classmates spurring them on. Who can forget how Casey Heynes was thrust into the spotlight and acquired celebrity status, albeit momentarily, as the ‘fat kid who fought back’ against a student who had been bullying him for an extended period. Of course, amid the media frenzy and faux outrage, there is rarely any serious discussion about how, or why, our education system has allowed such behaviours to become an entrenched part of school life. Needless to say, Casey was suspended by the school despite being the victim, no doubt because his actions alerted the community to the types of behaviours that were occurring at this school. The embarrassment suffered by the school is seen as a more serious issue than any bullying or violence that may be occurring and I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that such thinking is typical among school administrators. Much of the reason for schools refusing to acknowledge bullying in their realm is because of the competitive nature of education. Schools are constantly trying to sell themselves to parents as the best option for their children. If schools were to acknowledge and address every incident of bullying and deal with it accordingly, the school would seem a particularly violent place. However, by turning a blind eye to acts of bullying, school administrators can spruik proudly that there have been very few such incidents in the school. They work on the principal that if you don’t acknowledge it, it isn’t happening, whilst the reality is that students are being harassed, assaulted and intimidated every single day in every single school.
Of course, bullying is much more than fisticuffs and extreme physical encounters. It is everything from name calling to social ostracism. It might be one student constantly annoying another in the classroom. It could be throwing objects at another student, kicking at a chair or desk, using derogatory terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’ or ‘wog’ or ’slope’. It could be spreading false information about another person or hiding a schoolbag or vandalising another student’s property. The list is endless and this doesn’t even begin to take into account the numerous methods of cyber bullying and online intimidation that is now so rampant amongst young people. The rise and rise of social media and mobile technologies has made it so much easier for people to fall victim to bullies and other nefarious characters that this type of harassment has almost reached epidemic proportions. These technologies have, to be fair, made it harder for parents and schools to observe and address bullying behaviours, which is all the more reason why education authorities have to do more to protect their students from harm. It is not fair on the students to leave such responsibilities to parents because, whether we like it or not, a great many parents are simply not equipped or interested enough to effectively protect their children. Schools need to step up with a genuine commitment to eliminate bullying. At the moment, approaches to bullying are reactive; addressing an incident after it has happened (and only then if they absolutely have to) rather than being pro-active by developing effective strategies to prevent it from happening at all. A principal or other such authority figure proclaiming on school assembly that “bullying is bad” is often the extent of any so-called anti-bullying strategy and such disregard for student welfare is unacceptable.
Research undertaken by Edith Cowan University identified that one in four students report being bullied every few weeks or more often. Given that a significant number of students never report being bullied because of a fear of retribution, a mistaken belief that they must deserve such treatment or the knowledge that very little, if anything will be done to prevent it from continuing, the real number of bullying incidents on any given day is staggering. Unfortunately, the consequences of bullying often plays out as the worst possible scenario; another young person takes their own life or engages in self-harming behaviours as a result of the low self-esteem that develops from being subjected to ongoing victimisation. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that bullying is the number one concern troubling school students in Australia, yet we seem to be floundering in in our efforts to develop effective, pro-active strategies to change student behaviours. Bullying is learnt behaviour and those who bully need guidance on how to behave. There are numerous organisations committed to promoting awareness and expounding the impact of bullying not only on the victims, but also the perpetrators and the broader community, yet we don’t really seem to be making much headway with regard to eliminating it as a large scale problem in schools across the country.
Whilst the people whose experiences feature in this book have emerged mostly unscathed and gone on to enjoy successful lives, this is definitely not always the case for victims of bullying. We know that children who are bullied are much more likely to suffer physical and mental health problems, poor academic achievement, poorer physical health and higher absenteeism. Victims of bullying are also much more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, with those who are bullied up to nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Surely such numbers are sobering enough to encourage a much more committed and coordinated approach to eliminating bullying from our school communities. Any approach to combat bullying must start in schools as it is the beliefs, values and behaviours that young people experience in school that will play a significant role in shaping their lives long into the future.
Is it any wonder that we see aggressive behaviours perpetuated in the community; from alcohol-fuelled fighting on the street, to talkback radio hosts launching vitriolic personal attacks on people with whom they don’t agree, to husbands using violence and intimidation to ‘control’ their spouses, to the seemingly increasing number of sexual assaults being perpetrated against women, to racist and/or homophobic slurs being directed at members of the public. Such behaviours can be attributed to the fact that they have manifested in our schools. Yes, there are many teachers who witness bullying on a daily basis and are doing whatever they can to eliminate these behaviours in their classrooms. However, such efforts are undermined and ultimately ineffective if the broader school community (principals, teachers, staff and parents) is not making a genuine commitment to tackling the problem. I mean, there is no point in an individual teacher developing and implementing anti-bullying strategies in their classroom if any behaviour expectations embedded in these are not mandated and enforced as a school-wide strategy. For whatever reason, school administrators seem reluctant to tackle the problem with enthusiasm and commitment and such apathy is extremely difficult to understand.
Perhaps much of the problem lies with the fact that many of the people who work in schools engage in the very behaviours that constitute bullying and are therefore unlikely to recognise such behaviours in others, let alone take any action. Whether it is teachers, parents and/or administrative staff bullying other teachers and staff or whether it is teachers bullying students, such goings-on are fairly common in my experience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody as a school is a workplace after all and we know that workplace bullying is as much a problem as bullying in any other context. If those in a position of leadership and authority cannot set a positive example with regard to the way they treat others, what hope is there that students are ever likely to understand the impact of such behaviours on those individuals who suffer at the hands of bullies?
As a teacher and a parent, I want to be confident that my child can attend school without ever having to fear being subjected to bullying or harassment. At the moment, no school can offer such an assurance and that is very sad indeed. An education system that cannot provide school students with a reasonable degree of certainty that they will not be subjected to physical or verbal assaults and/or other forms of bullying is fundamentally failing in their responsibilities to protect young people from harm. Whilst Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School offers considerable insight into the experiences of those who are bullied at school and is well worth reading, it is hard to know whether it will have any impact on the level of bullying that currently pervades Australian school campuses and the cyber bullying epidemic propagated via an ever increasing number of digital platforms to which we have seemingly surrendered. If nothing else, this book might provide some solace to other victims of bullying simply by knowing that their experience is shared by people who have gone on to find success despite the best efforts of their tormentors to tear them down. We must work together to develop a united, coordinated, and sustained program of action to tackle bullying in all its forms. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities to Australia’s young people and that is unacceptable.