Does the law belong in the classroom?

To say that being repeatedly dehumanised will have no impact on a child’s personal development and mental wellbeing is asking too much

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A “watershed” ruling has reheated the debate over whether, as think tank Civitas is reported to have put it, the law belongs in the classroom.

Or, to put it another way, whether school bullies should be above the law. Now, there’s a broader question, of course, as to whether we should be criminalising young people at all, but since we already do, the question is: should criminal behaviour be ignored, just as long as it happens in a school? Should justice for an assault on or abuse of a child (in this case, racist abuse, which nearly drove a 14-year-old to suicide) be conditional on where it happened?

It’s easy to shrug our shoulders at bullying. It doesn’t help that the word gets thrown around so much by adults to describe stuff they just don’t like. ‘Young people’s issues’ get trivialised enough as it is. There are, of course, a lot of adults who know only too well the damage bullying does, but it’s amazing how long the shame can stay with you. With so many of us too busy running from our own memories to speak up for others, conversations like this get left to people who have no clue.

Perhaps the word ‘bullying’ is too vague. So let’s talk about specifics: a child followed into the bathrooms each day by gangs, or blocked from accessing the toilets, even when they’re ill. A child beaten to bleeding, in front of a crowd that laughs. A child being frightened or ashamed to talk to their own friends and family in public, in case their friends or family get bullied too, by association. A child being threatened or assaulted each day, with adults in the room, pretending they don’t see. To imagine that being trapped in a world of isolation, shame, and constant, repeated dehumanisation will have no impact on a child’s personal development and mental wellbeing is, to put it mildly, asking an awful lot of that child.

Classroom discipline is a messy subject. Like so many things, it doesn’t exist in isolation. Manageable class sizes and strong teaching support are essential; controlling 15 or 16 kids is an entirely different ball game from controlling 30. The quality of SEN resources is also particularly relevant. Pupils with an autism spectrum disorder, and pupils with dyslexia or dyspraxia are significantly more likely to be bullied. Not only that, but these pupils are often less able to articulate what happens to them, and more likely to be disbelieved when they do. The damage doesn’t stop at the school gate, either. Laurence Manning, for example, battled with dyslexia and bullying through primary school, but it was the resultant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that led him to commit suicide at 16. There are strong links between bullying in childhood and mental illness right through adulthood – that’s for both bullied pupils, and the bullies themselves.

That’s why it’s so important not to minimise and dismiss bullying as so trivial it can be shrugged off even where laws are broken. Upholding justice in a clear, visible way is not just important in terms of stopping bullying. It sends a message to young people that even if we, adults, can’t stop bullying we are at least on their side. Bullying isn’t just being laughed at and spat on, ostracised and beaten. It feels like a lesson about your place in the world, and a lesson about what you can expect from the human nature of others. That lesson is hard to unlearn. That’s why the Stonewall ‘It Gets Better’ campaign and Shane Koyczan’s ‘Pork Chop’ video are so powerful: they’re not just about stopping bullying. They are about repeating, over and over again to bullied pupils that this will not be who they are, this will not be what their life looks like, forever.

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