Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Warning: Schools may be abetting culture of bullying

By Cathy S. Babao-Guballa
First Posted 00:42am (Mla time) 04/15/2007

MANILA, Philippines - Perhaps there is nothing more painful for a parent to witness than the bullying of her own child.

My family and I found ourselves in such a predicament during our youngest son’s fencing tournament a few months ago. Emilio was participating in his first-ever fencing tourney and he was very excited.

A beginner, he was at the bottom-rung in his pool, but in spite of this, he kept on smiling and trying to do his best. We had drilled into his head the adage “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game,” and our young man was trying his best to live up to it.

Much to our disgust we overheard another boy, the leading player in Emilio’s pool, continually taunting him with “You’re so easy beat!” We let it go the first few times, but when he kept harassing our son, to the point of placing him in the middle of a circle and asking his fencing-mates—“So who among you has beaten Emilio?”—we had to intervene.

My husband went up to the bully’s father and asked him gently to speak to his son about sportsmanship. The boy’s mother was clearly displeased with my husband’s request, but the father immediately obliged and gave his son a dressing-down.

My husband then went on to speak to the coach about the bully’s unsportsmanlike behavior. Fencing, being a gentleman’s sport, places high regard for behavior on and off the fencing arena. Because of his behavior, the bully got a few points shaved off his lead. At the end of the competition, instead of bagging the gold, he received a bronze medal instead.

And though Emilio did not win any medal that day, he came home with a more important lesson—to be sportsmanlike in the face of defeat and see that bullies are checked.

How bullies are made

Are bullies born? Psychologist Dr. Honey Carandang says role-modeling plays a very important role in the shaping of a bully.

“Often, they see the behavior at home with one parent bullying another, so it is normal for them and they act this way in school” she says. “The bully is usually a person, a child who has very low self-worth and who finds power by putting down another person. The mindset is “I am no one, so I have to be someone. The bully is someone who wants to have power over another person.”

Carandang says bullying seems on the rise in many exclusive schools in the country. “Sadly, the problem is not being addressed by school authorities and there lies the great danger.”

Carandang relates the tragic story of the infamous 1999 Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado, in which youngsters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris massacred several of their high-school classmates.

“Klebold and Harris were the victims of bullying for many, many years—taunted and subjected to humiliation and abuse. That does not excuse their actions, but it certainly shows you what great tragedy can result from not paying attention to the culture of bullying that exists in many schools today.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Monitor says: “Developmental studies show that in elementary school, bullies and their victims are disliked by other children. Janna Juvonen’s research at the University of California in Los Angeles indicates that by middle school, however, victims are still disliked, but bullies have achieved social status. Indeed, Harris and Klebold noted with anger that some of the high-status jock bullies, convicted of burglary, received an especially lenient sentence.”

APA also says parents are an important factor in the total equation. “Research has shown a strong link between high-risk behavior in teens and parents who basically do not know what their children are doing. In other words, nosier, more intrusive parenting seems to be a protective factor against risky, dangerous teen behavior. It appears from all accounts that this protective factor was lacking in the parenting environment of Harris and Klebold.”

Unlike in the West, bully victims in the Philippines, rather than hit back, commit suicide, Carandang says.

“I’ve had several cases of young boys who come to my clinic on the verge of killing themselves because they could no longer stand the bullying that was taking place in school,” she says.

In Japan, Carandang adds, there have been cases of children as young as 7 years old who have tried to kill themselves because of bullying.

She also says that bullying does not exist in boys’ schools alone but in exclusive girls’ schools as well. “Here the bullying takes place in the form of verbal abuse or ostracizing a particular girl, leaving her out of the group or the barkada and making her feel worthless.”

Children pick up a lot of signals from their parents as well.

“Children see this at home and absorb the dynamics between parents and parent and child,” Carandang says. She advises parents: “If your child is a bully, before getting angry, I would suggest that if you are the parent, you look into yourself first.”

Carandang says unloving parents are often viewed by the child as “I am unlovable.” In reality, it is the parent who has the problem and issues to deal with.

What schools can do

Schools, though, are the arena where the bullying takes place, and Carandang expresses frustration about the way school officials in the Philippines have addressed the culture of bullying in schools.

“Usually, bullies act in groups of three or four versus the siga-siga type of bully whom everyone is afraid of,” she notes.

She cites the particular case of a senior high school student from an exclusive boys’ school in Quezon City who had been harassed by a group of bullies since he was a freshman. “It was terrible, they would call him gay, gang up on him and one of them would strip off their shirt and say to this boy “See, see you’re blushing. You’re really gay!”

This young man came to see Carandang because he had become terribly depressed and was on the verge of killing himself.

Carandang says the problem is that schools can’t seem to address the issue. “Normally, there will be a bystander—someone who sees that the bullying that is taking place—but he doesn’t do anything to remedy the situation. This kind of scenario can be changed if you empower the bystander and also address the needs of the bullies.”

The problem lies often in school authorities who think bullying is the norm. They turn a blind eye on the bullying and even blame the bullied for not asserting himself.

“Some school authorities have zero empathy,” Carandang says. “I remember once at another boys’ school, one of my clients, a young boy on the heavy side, was constantly taunted by is classmates because of his weight. One afternoon while waiting for their ride home, the bullying group threw mud on the boy who was on the sidewalk waiting for his car... When I spoke with the school administrator about it, she acted like there was nothing wrong and even said the boy should instead learn to fend for himself. I was terribly, terribly disappointed.”

Researchers in the United States have developed school-wide anti-bullying programs. When introduced and supported by school authorities, these programs have proven to be very effective preventive measures.

Schools, Carandang explains, must moderate their obsession with academic standards and achievement and be given resources to adopt preventive programs.

“There’s too much competition and it has become a challenge of one upmanship where bullying tactics are employed by usually the slower but stronger ones,” Carandang says. “The formula is too much demand academically but too little outlets physically, emotionally and creatively so there is no balance or release.

“The sad part of the schools that I have talked to is they do not see the value in the nonacademic activities that can help change the tide of the bullying culture. Many schools no longer see the need for a child to play, to have art, for music—these are essentials.

“What we need to do is to have a reorientation of the whole school system so that there will be a balance. Otherwise, the cases of bullying in schools will continue to escalate.”

Carandang says the key is to educate the bystander and, in general, the school population, to reorient them to speak up if they see an incident of bullying.

Carandang urges schools to check the culture of bullying. She says the alternative is a Columbine happening here. Or bullies growing up into irresponsible, ill-adjusted adults.

“These bullies today will grow up into the bullies of tomorrow—heads of corporations, heads of countries who delight in the suffering of other people. It has to stop while the child or youth is still in school. Nobody deserves to be bullied.”