Last week was Anti-Bullying Week in Canada and in the UK, where there is currently a move to make the focus on this important issue last for the whole of November. But of course, the issues highlighted don’t disappear when you’re not looking at them – in fact, bullies are usually very clever at keeping their actions hidden. The message still needs to be got across at all times that bullying is not acceptable. We adults have a responibility for teaching respect for others and ourselves, both through formal education and in the example we set in our own behavior.
I have recently been reading two books in which young people tell of their experiences of bullying in their own words, accompanied with photographs and names in most cases.
The first, We Want You to Know: Kids Talk About Bullying is by Deborah Ellis (Coteau Books, 2010), who is well-known for drawing attention to the plight of children around the world caught up in mess caused by adults, both in her fiction (The Breadwinner Trilogy, set in Afghanistan; and the Cocalero novels, set in Bolivia), and in her non-fiction (Off To War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children; Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees). We Want You to Know brings together the stories of young people aged 9-19 who have been bullied, who have bullied others, and who “have found strength within themselves to rise above their situations and to endure.” They are all from Ellis’ “little corner of Southern Ontario” in Canada, following her involvement in a local Name It 2 Change It Community Campaign Against Bullying (and, indeed, royalties from the sale of this book go to the organization). At the same time, interspersed with the longer accounts from the Canadian children are shorter highlighted statements from children across the world – Angola, Japan, Madagascar, South Korea, Uganda, the US. Yes, bullying happens everywhere.
The book is divided into five main sections, You’re Not Good Enough, You’re Too Different, You’re It—Just Because, We Want to Crush You, and Redemption. Each account has a couple of follow-up questions, asking “What Do You Think?”, and then there are discussion questions at the end of the sections.
The other book is Bullying and Me: Schoolyard Stories by Ouisie Shapiro with photographs by Steven Vote (Albert Whitman, 2010). Again, it features first-hand accounts of young people who the introduction reminds us, “had a hard time reliving their experiences”, while recognising the importance of not remaining silent, to remind others who are bullied that “you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault.” Each account is followed by useful summarising statements from Dr Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist specializing in adolescent bullying.
Both these titles are aimed at young readers – but make no mistake, they are hard-hitting books that deliver a punch at any adult complacent enough to think that bullying is not a relevant issue in their community. Where it’s not happening, it’s because an effective anti-bullying policy is in place AND adhered to. What comes through time and time again in these accounts is the ineffectiveness of schools to put a stop to bullying – either the problems are trivialized or too much onus is put back on the victims to work through the situation, rather than dealing with the bullying that is the actual source of any problems. Ellis says in her introduction:
Many kids talked about how teachers in their school seem to do nothing to stop their tormentors. I know that teachers do a lot, but rules of confidentiality prevent them from sharing information about all their efforts. But somehow we must find a way to show the victims of bullying that they are being heard.
As an adult reading these books, here are a few of the quotations from We Want You to Know that made my blood run cold:
Sometimes the teachers tell me, “If you don’t want to get beat up, stay inside for recess. [..] My mom tries to help. She calls the school and she calls the principal, but the principal doesn’t believe her, even! The principal will say, “You can’t prove Adam was hurt on school property, so there’s nothing we can do about it.”
They started calling me names again. I told the teacher and the principal, and the teacher said, “Well, if you stop bugging them, they’ll stop bugging you,” but I’m not the one who is bothering anyone.
The principal said she’s not going to do anything more because I’ve had so many problems with this before, she’s starting to think it’s me that’s the problem. She says I’m old enough now  to walk away and ignore it.
My mom and dad went to the school a few times to talk to the vice principal and the principal. They were sort of supportive, but they never called it bullying. They have a zero tolerance for bullying, but it happens. And when it happens, they don’t call it bullying so they can say that bullying doesn’t happen.
Of course, the main focus of these accounts is what actually happened to the children, how they coped, and how it has affected them and their aspirations for the future. For children who find themselves the victims of bullying, these books will be an invaluable tool – reading about someone’s similar experience will help them not to feel so alone, and they will hopefully also pick up some useful pointers for how to deal with their own situations. In schools and youth groups, individual stories can be used as the focal point of a forum/assembly on bullying in general or in response to a specific incident. (And I also recommend Suzanne Gervay’s I Am Jack as a class fiction readaloud – as well as every teacher’s and parent’s bedtime reading).
Bullying and its effects must be taken seriously. It’s not about putting out the fire when an incident occurs. The whole ethos of a school and the way it deals with the unhappiness, fears and inadequacies of bullies and bystanders as well as victims needs to be a high priority across the board. Schools aim for excellence in learning, but if the safety and welfare of their students are not taken seriously, not only do those students fail to thrive, but effective learning is impossible. Bullying is a whole-school issue: every adult who works in a school should be signed up to and implementing a school’s anti-bullying policy – and so should the children. Anti-bullying week is a start, but the work doesn’t finish there…