Bullying needs to be dealt with immediately, forcefully, with the full weight of school board policy and law - even in its earliest stages, even if it hasn't yet become physical.
By Michelle Martin
Published May 04, 2009
By now everyone has heard about the 15-year-old boy in Keswick who punched a fellow student in the face (breaking his nose) in self-defence, after his attacker pinned him up against the wall, taunted him with racist epithets and punched him in the mouth.
Of course, the student who acted in self-defence was charged and suspended, while the bully who had a history of this behaviour was left alone. Once again, in school, the person who starts the fight gets off lightly, while the person who finishes the fight gets punished.
While it's true that racist attitudes are at play here, I'm going to suggest another contributing factor to this egregious injustice. Bullying behaviour everywhere isn't adequately punished because it involves time and trouble on the part of school administrators.
Bullying needs to be dealt with immediately, forcefully, with the full weight of school board policy and law - even in its earliest stages, even if it hasn't yet become physical. Anyone who has ever been to school knows that the modus operandi of a bully is to provoke and provoke in the sneakiest manner possible until the victim yells, or swears, or strikes out in exasperation, then enjoy watching his or her victim get in trouble.
But things like name-calling and face-making don't appear as immediately serious, and there's a lot of paperwork involved in suspending someone, even if you've got witnesses and an obviously upset target (provided the targeted child isn't too self-conscious about so-called tattling)...
So things aren't always handled according to the principles of natural justice. Even when there's evidence of physical harm to the victim alone, justice isn't always done.
Years ago, when we lived in Toronto, my oldest (now 21) was in grade five. One day, a schoolmate of his began to shove him repeatedly in the schoolyard.
He started out defending himself by making "I statements", the way students were all taught in the nineties. However, "I don't like it when you shove me repeatedly" wasn't getting him anywhere, so he knocked the kid's arm out of the way, once. In return, the kid hit him in the eye.
As a result, they were both hauled into the office.
I happened to stop by the school, can't remember why, but I walked in to see my son, with a scratched and swollen eye, being lectured by his teacher about using "I statements". When the teacher briefed me about what happened, she informed me that both my son and the other boy would be writing letters of apology.
I told her my son would not be writing a letter of apology to anyone. End result? No punishments for either boy, not even for the instigator. The kid never bothered my son again, though.
Four hundred classmates of that victim in Keswick stood up for him in protest. I wonder how many of them are motivated not only by the desire to stand firm against racism, but also by the fact that they've seen too many similar situations (of varying degrees of seriousness) over the course of years in school.
They know what it took my generation so much research to figure out: that contrary to ABC after-school special wisdom, bullies don't suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Bullies actually suffer from an over-abundance of it, and an accompanying lack of empathy for others.
Justice needs to be done, and to be seen to be done, if schools are to be both physically and emotionally safe places to learn and grow.
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