8 JUNE 2001

Bullying affects "every school in Scotland"

When hell is other pupils

Emma Robertson was a pretty girl, who played the guitar and sang at the local church. She was studious, reading up to six books a week. Last week the Edinburgh teenager took her life after becoming the target of bullies. 
It is thought that around 15 young people in the UK commit suicide every year because of bullying. Many more ó up to 30 per cent of schoolchildren ó never report the bullying and suffer silently. 

Bullying, according to Professor Pamela Munn of the Anti-Bullying Network, is something that affects every school in Scotland.  
Educationalist George Robinson says that while it is important for schools to concentrate on preventing incidents of bullying taking place, they must also be prepared to deal effectively when it does happen. Together with his colleague, Barbara Maines, he has developed the "No Blame" approach to bullying where, instead of punishing bullies, you bring them and their colluders together with the victim and friends to solve the problem. 

Rather than trying to establish the facts of what happened, the group is asked to look at how the victim felt to be targeted in this way. The hope is that enough people will decide to support the victim, taking the power away from the bully. Research in Kingston Upon Hull showed this approach had an immediate 80 per cent success rate. 

"I challenge the concept of punishment being a useful way to change young peopleís behaviour," says Robinson.  "If a kid gets their maths or spelling wrong you teach them how to do it right. The same should apply if they get their behaviour wrong. 

"The No Blame approach is totally opposite to what you would traditionally expect to do. We donít investigate incidents and we donít look to blame or punish bullies. "Detentions donít change a pupilís behaviour. If you want to change a bullyís behaviour you need to make him aware of how the behaviour is making the victim feel. "We donít see bullies as bad people. We see nice people involved in bullying. We have to encourage them to change their behaviour." 

Although the first feeling of many parents is to seek revenge, he says that in general they want the bullying to stop and they certainly donít want it to get worse. He blames the traditional approaches for the fact that 30 per cent of youngsters donít report bullying. "They are not confident teachers have a successful strategy for dealing with bullies," he says. 

Although most people acknowledge the importance of involving children in drawing up anti-bullying strategies, there is some debate as to how far that involvement should go. 

It seems Emma obertson was bullied because she was different from other children in her school ó neighbours say she was teased for the way she dressed and her books were pulled out of her hands and thrown on the ground. Teachers at the school were not aware of any concerted bullying of Robertson. They remember her as a girl who enjoyed her time there.  This, says Andrew Mellor, manager of the Anti-Bullying network, is why it is so important to involve youngsters in the development of anti-bullying strategies. Bullying does not always include physical violence and is not always obvious. Sometimes it is verbal ó using threats, name-calling, persistent teasing or spreading rumours ó and sometimes emotional, such as excluding someone from a group. 

Research shows that while boys will bully both girls and boys, and are more likely to use physical aggression, girls tend to bully only other girls and are more likely to use verbal and psychological aggression. 

Whatever form it takes, and whoever is responsible, Emma Robertsonís suicide highlights how the problem of bullying can be a matter of life and death for some youngsters. At an anti-bullying conference in Glasgow last week, Scottish education minister Jack McConnell called for a zero tolerance approach to bullying. "We see it as a major national priority," he said. "I intend to continue to increase resources to tackle ethos, discipline and bullying and support those on the front line who need to get on with their work and learning without that sort of intimidation and those sorts of problems. 

"One of the ways to achieve that is through the participation not just of teachers, but pupils participating in the running of schools and also parents."  As with anything, prevention is better than cure and delegates at the same conference heard how peer-support systems could provide the key to reducing the impact of bullying while improving the ethos of a school. 

Professor Helen Cowie, of the University of Surrey Roehampton, says: "Young people today face a lot more problems. There has been a huge increase in psychosocial disorders. Society is more complex. There are more pressures on young people and there is an increase in the problems young people experience. "Relationship difficulties are reported by young people to be a major preoccupation. Bullying and social exclusion cause young people an immense amount of distress." 

Peer-support schemes range from buddying or befriending schemes where volunteer pupils are trained to offer friendship or informal support, to mentoring schemes or counselling where support takes place in specially designated rooms. 

Cowie, who has done extensive research into peer support, says that while it will not provide a total solution to the problem of bullying, it can act as an intervention to counteract bullying. In a study of 51 secondary schools where peer-support schemes had been in place for more than a year, she says more than 82 per cent of the pupils who used the schemes have found them helpful in giving them the strength to cope with bullying. The sense of community in these schools was also enhanced by the presence of a peer-support system. 

As well as helping the victims of bullying, peer supporters benefited from the schemes, learning how to become good listeners and communicators. But Cowie says peer supporters cannot be called upon to solve intransigent problems and sometimes have to face quite a lot of flak as they go about their work. Only 20 per cent of volunteers are boys, because it is seen as something "wimpy". There can also be problems where adults do not want to share power with youngsters. 

Mellor warns against involving children in a tokenistic way. He also believes that while it is important in cases of verbal bullying ó which are sometimes difficult to detect ó to have the involvement of youngsters, adults must intervene in very serious incidents. "We have got to treat all incidents on their merits," he says. "We have got to try and listen to the voices of people who have been bullied. 

"It is not just about bullying, it is about creating a more positive ethos where bullying is less likely to happen and where when it does happen, it is discussed openly. "Itís about creating an environment where itís easier for children to develop individually and to learn. Everybody has to be involved in creating a positive ethos, parents as well." 

Caroline Harris, of East Lothian Parents and Pupils Against Bullying (which is about to change its name to the Parents Advocacy Service), agrees that parents have a huge role to play in solving the problem of bullying. "It wonít work if it is just a one-sided thing with the school," she says. "A lot of our work is not just about educating children, itís about educating adults. A fair percentage of parents will say Ďhit backí. That is not the answer. We need parents to back us up, not to go against what we are teaching the children at school. 

"I think initially every parent dies when their child gets hurt. You love your child so much you want to take away any hurt or hard times they have had. The bullies will often have massive issues themselves. The old-fashioned methods just compounded the problem. The children just ended up with more problems and went out and did twice as much damage. There was never work with both parties to try and resolve the issue, to look for solutions." 

One parentís story 

IN THE last few months all three of Jillís daughters have become victims of bullies. Sexually explicit material has been sent to her eldest daughterís e-mail and the address has been registered with a lesbian chat line. In an incident on the school bus she was smeared with food, and even outside of school the problems continue. When she went to a new youth club, the brakes on her bike were dismantled. 

"You feel you have done something to make them targets," says Jill, "even though I know they have targeted other children before. "Itís horrible to see the difference in my children on a normal day and when something happens. It really knocks them. Itís heartbreaking. "It is like an insidious thing. It starts off as small incidents, but itís relentless. There is a feeling of going to school, not knowing if they are going to pick on you." 

She became aware of the problem when the youngest two, who are both at primary school, began coming home with their heads down and without the normal bounce in their steps. "It started with name calling and at first she put it down to high spirits. Some of the things you could describe as fairly minor ó name calling, taunting, saying things like: ĎI know bigger boys who will wait outside your gate and beat you upí or ĎWhen you go to high school, my friends are going to beat you up.í" 

However, when it continued, the headteacher agreed to talk to the children involved and separate them in the classroom. The bullying then escalated into punching and kicking, with the older of the two girls being punched in the stomach and the youngest given a dead arm on the bus. While the headteacher told Jill she would contact the other parents, the children were merely told a letter would go home if they did it again. 

The eldest daughter is being bullied by a girl who used to be her friend. It all started after she stayed overnight at the girlís house. A blouse she had left behind was returned smeared in ink and bubble bath and she started to face taunts. When her parents told her to keep her head down, she then came home from school one day covered in cola because she had not responded to the taunts. 

Although initially the guidance teacher at the school talked to both girls and got an agreement that the problem would be resolved, the teacher then went off sick and there was no follow up. The deputy headteacher has told Jill there is not much she can do and " not to make a big thing of it". 

Meanwhile, Jill is torn between the feeling she is making things worse if she pursues the matter and letting her daughters down if she doesnít. 

Rosie Free in The Scotsman




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