Tackling bullying in schools: CCTV isn't the answer

Before we ask whether CCTV cameras in schools will cut bullying, we need to make sure we understand why children bully others in the first place.

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The Independent Online

To tackle any behaviour you need to fully understand it; kids bully for a whole myriad of reasons, from wanting to fit in, to problems at home, to profound psychological issues. The main thing bullies have in common is the need to feel powerful – and a life which, for whatever reason, offers limited scope to do so.

With this in mind, can CCTV tackle bullying? Will it lessen motivation? Will it help bullies reach emotional security, and stop their negative behaviour cycles?

CCTV works by letting you know that your activities aren’t secret. Whether this is something we’re comfortable with from a civil liberties perspective – a whole other argument in itself - there’s no doubt it works for certain crimes; usually ones the criminal is ashamed to commit.

So what about school bullying? Well, in some schools, it is said that bullies act up for the cameras. Nowadays we see bullies film their own acts of cruelty and upload them to the internet. Criminals typically deterred by CCTV – such as bike thieves or shoplifters - don’t tend to do that.

Some schools do report that these cameras work for them, although many disagree. But in any case, there’s something intrinsically problematic about using figures which show a fall in bullying as a result of CCTV to argue that it is needed to prove bullying exists. If CCTV worked in this way, surely incidents of recorded bullying would rise? If cameras are needed to record incidents of bullying, how can the school know how much bullying there was without CCTV?

A drop in incidents can even just mean that bullies are acting off the school premises. Such a drop might make the school look better but the difference between being beaten up in the corridors and being beaten up in the street on your way home is pretty minimal. Anyone locked in the bullying cycle will find places to do it, as surely as an alcoholic will find alcohol.

One ex-victim told me she was severely beaten in the bus park in front of a large crowd. She says the school told her it was a matter for the police; the police said it was a matter for the school. There were, apparently, numerous witnesses: the problem wasn’t her failure to come forward or a lack of evidence. The problem was an obfuscation of duty by those in positions of power.

The sad, brutal fact is that most bullying isn’t secret. We don’t need cameras: we can see it perfectly well with our own eyes, should we open them. 

The idea that cameras will discourage bullying is no doubt well-meaning, but it seems borne out of a fantasy too many adults revert to; that they would have the power to stop the bullies. This is endearing but misguided. Some teachers have a harder time controlling the class than the bullied child does. Some parents have little more to offer their bullied son or daughter than clichéd tips which amount to the confusing and contradictory message that you should stand up for yourself, but never draw attention to yourself; be confident and be yourself, but keep your head down and be quiet at the same time. Often the response the child receives from the school is utterly useless.

As we saw with advice handed out in schools not so long ago, the victim’s own personality can end up under a microscope. Why bother reporting a bully if you’re just going to be told to wear your hair differently, or ‘act less gay’? If bullying could be stopped that easily, the victims would be able to stop it themselves.

The problem isn’t that these incidents are secret. It’s that they are far too normalised.

CCTV may or not help in specific situations but if we’re taking this problem seriously we need to understand that the barriers to resolving it are deeper than just proving it happens. I spoke to one woman bullied almost to the point of suicide as a teenager, who talked me through a fairly standard incident where a gang of bullies tipped a pint of water over her in cooking class. She swore at them, and was sent out to be disciplined. Would that teacher behave differently under CCTV? Maybe, but the bullied woman believes not. The headteacher was hardly better, she says. The problem isn’t that these incidents are secret. It’s that they are far too normalised. And that’s an issue which transcends our classrooms.

As adults, our lips might tell young people that bullying is wrong but young people aren’t stupid, and our collective behaviour as a society clearly says otherwise. Phrases like ‘zero tolerance’ are rendered meaningless in a culture which celebrates bullies as relentlessly as ours does.

In tabloids and magazines, reality television and comedy, even political debate and government policy, there are enormous social and commercial rewards to be won by being an obnoxious bully. It doesn’t matter how many times we teach a teenager that bullying gets you nowhere in life: they turn on the television and see that it absolutely does.

Maybe we can’t change that culture. But we can give young people an alternative to it. In the end, the schools that do best in terms of anti-bullying seem to be the schools that give their pupils the best opportunities elsewhere – cameras or no cameras. When young people have access to constructive means of empowerment, they’re less inclined to bully.

Until we do more than tell kids there are better ways to feel good about themselves, until we actually make it true, cameras in schools will reinforce bullying myths, and make adults feel we’re doing something significant about it when we’re not, but it won’t touch the real problem. However well-intentioned, tilting at windmills should get no pats on the back; if anything, a solution like CCTV shows how poor our grasp on the magnitude of the problem really is.