Katy Guest: School bullies need a lesson in respect and compassion


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The Independent Online

One of the questions that I have about parenting is: how would you cope if you found out your child was a bully? I've heard all about the instinctive reactions and the unconditional love, but if your child had made another's life a misery, could you ever look at him or her in the same way again?

When I saw the comments on the novelist Amanda Craig's public Facebook page last week, I worried that their authors' parents might feel sick to realise that they had raised such bullies. And then I worried that maybe they would not. Could it be possible to love a child so much that he could tell a complete stranger to jump off a bridge ("you shan't be missed") and you would somehow give him the impression that that was OK? How would a mother feel if she saw her teenage son tell a woman: "The streets are no longer safe and we all know what you look like... Take care (you'll need it)"?

The comments were in response to a newspaper article that Craig had written, about her time at Bedales school. She was sexually assaulted there, she wrote, and "the bullying ranged from having my possessions deliberately damaged or defaced, to ostracism and relentless group nastiness from other girls."

I know nothing about Bedales, the £30,000-a-year Hampshire boarding school that endorses "progressive" and "liberal" values, but I do know about bullying, very well. At my bog standard comprehensive I was cursed, spat on, threatened and kicked, on what felt like most days for seven years.

What Craig wrote about Bedales applied just as well at my school: "If you are rich, gorgeous, self-confident, not particularly bright and sex-mad" then school can be the happiest years of your life. But if you are ugly, shy, bookish and awkward, it can make a slow disembowelment seem attractive. What Craig wrote is probably true of any school, but she wrote about her own, personal experience. For that, she has been viciously attacked.

Some of Craig's writer friends have come to her defence on the forum, and some of those have made a joke of her critics' spelling. I don't think it's entirely fair to pick on a 13- year-old's clumsy use of language, even if she is the beneficiary of a £30,000-a-year education; but I do think that a teenager who is rebutting accusations of illiteracy should probably make the effort to use a spellcheck.

Likewise, if these young people feel that they have been unfairly accused of bullying, then personal insults and threats of physical violence are not the way to defend their reputations.

I don't know what Bedales staff feel about this behaviour, but I'd like to think that teachers and parents would give a sharp lesson on respect and compassion and tell the writers of the worst comments to remove them. I don't personally know any Bedales students, but I am going to assume that these few bullies do not speak on behalf of their school. I hope that someone will have explained to them that their treatment of Craig, 40 years after she was first bullied at Bedales, does not "prove" that she deserves to be bullied, or "brings it on herself".

I suspect that being tormented at school might contribute to a person's becoming a writer, and I'm so glad that Ms Craig's experience has not killed her but made her stronger. But the fact that she has turned her bullying to success does not make it normal or OK. Any school should be appalled to find such language being used by its students, and act immediately to make it stop. I hope that these few bullies have made their teachers and their parents ashamed.