PEER ABUSE: Calling Bullying What It Is
Steffanie Petroni-Date for local2 sault ste. marie
October 23rd, 2012 at 10:42am
Bullying sounds a lot like abuse. Despite endless campaigns and school seminars to end bullying the problem isn’t going away. And the problem isn’t as ‘youthy’ as glossy terms like ‘bullying’ make it sound. Nobody is talking about throwing sand in the sandbox or not sharing their favourite coloured crayon from their protected hoard of purple Crayola’s. The act of bullying or peer abuse often leads to more ominous conclusions for the abused student such as broken bones, flesh wounds, mental health issues and God forbid, suicide.
Amanda has been a teacher for just over ten years. She works in an area where there is a higher prevalence of poverty and the socioeconomic challenges that are often associated with it. “We have a lot of kids in this school that are being abused at home, God knows what they’re eating and they wear the same outfit to school every day. Some of these kids are obviously bullied and some are the bullies. My definition of bullying is the act of violence and sheer isolation. We’ve got kids that come to school who have no friends and are completely ignored - it’s absolute cruelty.”
In adolescence and adulthood, risk factors associated with past bullying behaviour include: anti-social behaviour; increased occurrence to sexually harass; gang-related behaviours; lack of respect for authority figures; and increased possibility to commit spousal, child or senior abuse.
Gender differences also exist between the risk factors associated with bullying behaviour. For girls, bullying behaviour is closely linked to abuse suffered in the home, whereas bullying behaviour in boys is closely linked to involvement with anti-social or delinquent peers and behaviour. This explains why harm committed by girls is usually masked and difficult to detect in the social forms of bullying, while bullying behaviour exhibited by boys is primarily physical and visible to others.
Valerie Fresch and her daughter Olivia spent three years addressing abusive behaviour at Olivia’s school. Having relocated to the school in grade five Olivia didn’t feel welcomed from the beginning. “Nobody talked to me. I felt like I was the one trying to make friends with everyone else but there were two girls who were the ring leaders. They controlled the other girls in the class.”
As painful as this was for Olivia the treatment also hurt her mother. “The girls were isolating and segregating her. I’d drop Olivia off at school and I would watch the group of girls run away from her. I tried everything to help Olivia adjust to the new school. I was a parent volunteer, I would make beautiful lunches and encouraged Olivia to invite friends over.
One girl, Jennifer, had such control over the other girls. So much so that if she found out that a girl from the class was spending time with my daughter at home Jennifer would call and ask to speak to that little girl. I told her when she called my house that it was to ask to speak to Olivia not anybody else.”
The abuse at school was taken up a level when hands were laid on Olivia in the fifth grade. Attempting to ensure that Olivia stayed at the back of the line one of the perpetrators of the ongoing abuse shoved Olivia forcefully enough to send her flying across another student and over the top of a desk. She landed with her leg twisted beneath her body and the outcome was a cracked her growth plate and six months in a leg cast. The students streamed past her as she cried in obvious pain. After the class emptied out two teachers in the hall came in to assist.
When Valerie approached the school to pursue charges or at the very least some disciplinary measure as retribution the principal minimalized the gravity of the occurrence calling the matter a non-malicious accident. For the next three years the Fresch’s experienced this flippant attitude from the school when attempting to address the abusive behaviour doled out by Olivia’s peers.
As Olivia’s sense of isolation and loneliness increased at school her behaviour at home began to change. “I was becoming more lethargic. I didn’t want to do anything. I used to play sports, walk the dogs, play with my brother. I was always active. When I came home from school I just wanted to sit on the couch or go in my room and lay down.
One night I finally had an emotional outburst and everything came out. I told my mom that sometimes when I came home from school that I just wanted to hurt myself. It just hurt so much what was happening at school.”
Fed up with the lack of support from the school Valerie began escorting her daughter through the halls to class. Out of desperation and after having tried to communicate with the bullies parents without success, Valerie gently chided the girls who were verbally abusing, excluding and damaging Olivia’s property. This resulted in legal action from the Algoma District School Board that essentially banned Valerie from school grounds stating that she was a risk to the other students.
This highly publicized case garnered provincial attention and legal recourse has been sought on behalf of the Fresch’s. Reflecting back on the events leading to last year’s media frenzy Valerie would do it all over again. “It is my God given right and responsibility to ensure that my child is safe. And especially when the school can’t guarantee me that they have my daughter’s best interest at heart.”
Stephen’s bullying began in grade five and took on the shape of verbal and physical abuse. “A lot of my bullying was about the way I looked. I felt bad about myself. I felt depressed getting ready for school in the morning. I had a lot of ‘mental health days’ because of the bullying. I just didn’t want to go to school.”
Stephen often confided in his mother, Gloria, but this did little to alleviate the circumstances. “My mom kept giving me support but it didn’t help the situation. Sometimes it made me feel better in the moment but it didn’t change what was going on at the school.
Gloria had a great relationship with the teachers and the principal of Stephen’s school. She met with the educators on a regular basis but was never hopeful that anything could be resolved. “The teachers and principal were wonderful. I completely believed that they were sincere about supporting Stephen and addressing the matter of the bullying. I just thought the problem was too big. I really believe that the kids who were dishing out the abuse were kids that had big problems at home. In my opinion that’s where the problem needed to be addressed first- in the home.”
Stephen stuck it out until the end of grade six. By that time the verbal abuse had gotten so bad that Stephen couldn’t sleep at night and he had developed chronic stomach problems. In addition the physical abuse was so frequent that Stephen was encountering daily aggressions at school. “Every day there was some kind of physical contact- flicking me in the head, throwing things at me, tripping me and shoving and punching me. It was so bad that even after I left that school that throughout grade seven and eight I would naturally flinch when someone would walk by or tense up because I thought someone was getting ready to hit me.”
Moving to a new school was just one concrete way Gloria could help her son escape the daily abuse. Stephen, tired of being the kid to pick on, underwent a personal transformation. “I’ve had to become more aggressive. I feel colder but I have to be. I’ll never throw the first punch but I’ll hit back if anyone takes a swing at me. I don’t give anyone any leeway to insult me either. I get really loud and get the point across that I’m done taking bull shit from anyone.”
A report released by Public Safety Canada, publicsafety.gc.ca, lists a plethora of best practices and program models designed to prevent and reduce bullying. Practices range from early intervention strategies to multiple community partner collaborations to increased supervision to individualized guidance for bullies and victims.
Certainly no clear solution can be presented in one article. The surface has barely been scratched here. Our teacher, Amanda, acknowledges that the problem of bullying or peer abuse is so expansive that there isn’t just one simple answer. “However, I do think that you have to come at it as a rehabilitative issue, with the family and the kids. Punishment or discipline won’t make the problem go away. But that takes time, resources and money. I do think the majority of teachers out their do the best they can with the resources available and to the best of their ability. There are success stories too but people don’t always hear about it.”
Olivia and Stephen, who are both flourishing and enjoying friendships in new schools, kicked in their own expert advice generated from their time on the frontlines. Olivia sage beyond years encouraged young people who are experiencing bullying or peer abuse to reach out. “If something is bothering you don’t wait two years to tell somebody. Tell the principal or the teacher and then go home and tell your parents. You can demand justice for what’s been done to you. You deserve to be happy now.”
Stephen offers up some old fashion advice that he swears by. “If you’re going home and feeling like crap because of what some kid said to you or because someone is pushing you around at school, give them a shot in the mouth. The teachers aren’t going to like it but they know there’s nothing they can really do for you. Sure you’ll get into a bit of trouble, maybe you’ll have a few detentions but I guarantee you that kid isn’t going to bully you anymore.”