As term begins, children who have been bullied have to face their tormentors. Here, one father shares the vile messages sent to his son, and explains why the school is a culprit, too.
“Can you tell your mum to stop changing her lipstick so often? Cos my dick’s looking like a rainbow”
Our 11-year-old went back to school this week. He looked nervous, a little excited, but he looked more worried than thrilled by the prospect. He would be back to the grind of learning, of homework, of academic expectation and of teachers always wanting and expecting more. That wasn’t worrying him, it was his friends that were worrying him.
He spent last year being bullied – relentlessly so. In the playground, in the classroom, in his text messages and on social media. It was every day and it was as nasty as it was needless and unjustified. His only crime was to be the youngest in the school, to be from a different background (“12 Years A Slave? That’s your life, that is”) and, worst of all, to show that it got to him. It upset him and it worried him and he reacted and that was fuel to them. To get a reaction meant they would try harder to get another one.
He never ducked, he went back to that school every day – his acceptance that this was his lot was both strangely noble and heart-breaking. Taken in isolation, each incident doesn’t seem to add up to much, but the knowledge that, every day, there would be something else, some new taunt, dragged him down. They took a bright, sociable, enthusiastic boy, and turned the lights out.
He isn’t, of course, the only one. Reports last week suggested that nearly two thirds of children are worried by their imminent return and half of those have been bullied. And with all due respect to the academic rigour of This Morning, I’d suggest those figures are nowhere near the truth. Just this week the horrific story of an autistic teenager being chased by bullies, until he fell from a bridge and was left paralysed, has been widely reported.
“Go home and suck your dad’s dick. He’s a homo”
The problem with bullying isn’t just that it exists, but that, in my experience, reporting it to a school, or a parent, is counter-productive. Not only did my son’s school not protect him, they isolated him. They made him the problem. Because the problem, the school reckoned, wasn’t with the bullies. It was with the bullied. He wasn’t fitting in. He was finding it difficult to make friends. He needed better social skills. He was the issue. Not the ones who name-called, punched him, stole his watch, his dignity and his self-esteem. They were normal. He was the weird kid.
When I protested to the school they were fostering a bullying culture, they were adamant they were not, and then turned the conversation, once again, to how they could help him “fit in”. It, far too late, dawned on me that their energies were just as much concentrated on managing me as they were on “solving” the problem. Keeping a lid on it was everything – reputation management was key. After all, with any school, reputation is all. In the state or private sector, schools are judged by demand. That defines their status and, consequently, their success.
“#Ur a scrapeout” [abortion]
What’s more, they were shifting the blame. His failure to fit in made him bullied, rather than the bullying made him not want to fit in. It was the school equivalent of creating a deserving, contributory victim. He was asking for it.
The worry isn’t just that it will carry on into a new school year (and we came very close to swapping, but he decided it felt too much like giving in). The longer term worry is that the effects last.
A survey of adults by the Oxford Open Learning Trust suggested that 65 per cent of adults reckoned that school bullying had affected their self-confidence into adulthood, 36 per cent said that it had affected their ability to make friends and 27 per cent said that it had affected their mental health. This can linger. As Greg Smith, of the Oxford Open Learning Trust, says: “Bullying isn’t something that happens once and then you shrug it off, it is something which follows you throughout your life.”
“They were punching me and taking pictures to put on Instagram”
Then there is the academic impact that bullying can have on children. The same Oxford report says that victims of bullying stand a 26 per cent chance of achieving a top grade in their GCSEs, compared with 41 per cent for those who have grown up without being victimised.
And when schools make it obvious, in their actions if not their words, that the bullied kid is the weird kid, that they somehow invited their fate, then it’s no wonder. The corollary, of course, is that the bullies feel that their behaviour is tacitly supported and that they are the ones in the right. And so the cycle goes on.
This school, a very reputable one in London, may be an extreme example, but it’s not the only one. Talking to other schools, we were told that “bullying happens in every school”. In other words, man up, we don’t intend to do much about it in our school, either.
So my son is back in there now, sinking or swimming. Either a weak victim of his own failures, or the target of a bullying culture no one wants to tackle. But hopefully neither. Sadly, it seems as though the only solution is that they find someone else to pick on.