There is a common myth that pervades: Schools don’t do enough to stop bullying. My question to you- what is bullying and what does it mean to you? I only ask because no one has ever given me a definition which everybody involved agrees on. If you ask the perpetrator, then s/he will say ‘I am not a bully because I only said it a couple of times’ or ‘S/he started it’. Other times, they will say ‘I didn’t mean it’ or ‘Sorry I thought we were playing, s/he knows I am only joking’.
The truth is, if someone perceives your actions to have caused them distress- then bullying it is. It doesn’t matter if it is a one-off or sustained. ‘Bullying’ isn’t a word that I liked using because of the confusion over its meaning.
In most cases mediation and swift intervention is key to prevention, all UK schools will have a anti-bullying policy in place, and as a Head of Year it is always wise to keep an account of any incidents you have dealt with.
But prevention is the cure and the Ofsted framework for Outstanding, agrees. There must always be an anti-bullying message running through your cohort’s ethos- are you promoting unity in your assemblies and PSHE? Do your year group know that they have to look out for each other? As little Year 7s to report anything they see, as year 10s to intervene when they see anything untoward. To be ambassadors for each other and their school.
These are the little seeds that you sow everyday. But it doesn’t stop bullying altogether, it just makes it easier to tackle and deal with.
Take S, her mum called me in distress and said ‘please don’t tell her, I called you. I heard her talking to her friends about it and she will never forgive me.’ She explained that some older boys had been throwing her daughter about and touching her, she didn’t like it but the more she protested, the worst it got. Mum didn’t know what the touching part meant- she was petrified it was something awful. I encouraged her to talk to S but said she couldn’t. So I called S up to my office and asked her to look out of window with me for a while. It was break-time and the usual activities were occurring- all oblivious to our staring eyes.
I asked S what could she see. She recounted the football players, the sandwich eaters, the litter droppers and the toilet queue. I asked her if she could see anything else and she said no. With a little surprise in my voice, I asked her if she could see any boys throwing girls around the floor. She looked at me, puzzled. No, she said. I said because to my knowledge, it wasn’t a usual occurrence so when it did happen, it made the front page of the Miss Knight Daily News.
She hung her head a little, she clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I told her the CCTV had picked it up and the site manager had seen her tie colour and when I saw it, I knew instantly who it was, it was you. So do you want to tell me a little more about it? She said she didn’t want to ‘grass’ them up. I said too late for that, the CCTV had done that job for her and I would be telling them so. She explained it was a little horseplay that had got a bit rough, the boys were from the year above and they were her mates. There wasn’t anything else to it. I asked her about the touching as it ‘looked inappropriate’, she said they were honestly mucking around. She just didn’t know how to tell them to stop it.
S sat in another room while I called for the boys. I went in hard. Accused them of assault, threatened them with police action if they didn’t tell me the absolute truth. Explained that no one messes with my year group. Ever. I stared at them whilst each sat separately and wrote down the incident. The accounts tallied, verbatim. I said sorry to accuse you all and smiled my concerns sweetly. I used personal pronouns in guilt-inducing sentences such as ‘how would you feel if this was your sister or your mother?’. The boys involved needed to relate this incident to their loved ones, they needed to empathise and see different perspectives and understand the different consequences and outcomes of their actions.
All young people need time to think, to reflect upon their actions and others’ feeling in contexts which are familiar. They have to relate in order to understand. As a Head of Year, your duty is to ensure both parties are able to go forward. Young people often are caught in their ego and the moment; it is our job to bring them back to the here and now through empathetic understanding. A little anecdote goes a long way.
I explained to the boys that S hadn’t told me and I would have to explain everything to her first and then they would apologise. So S listened to the story and stayed mute, while I embellished the horror and trauma at finding such an awful video-tape and the sheer relief that is was all ok. The boys said sorry and she said it was fine. They all went away satisfied customers and with an added understanding that this Head of Year means business.
So was this bullying? Depends on the words you want to use. Was it a sustained attack both verbally and physically by a group of older boys over a month or so which had progressively worsened for the younger, more vulnerable female victim? Or was it, children at play who didn’t realise their actions had consequences and they just needed guidance?
Bullying takes shape and manifests for different reasons, but as Head of Year, you have to be the biggest bully, the one who every child is in fear of. The one whose laser eye stare can cripple small children from fifty paces… or maybe let me put it another way, the one who is respected and trusted to listen fairly and take appropriate and measured actions. The one on everybody’s side.
Here are some useful links for you: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforteachers/classroomresources/bullyingresources/schoolbullyingbriefing_wdf85722.pdf