Bullying is something so pervasive in our society that almost everyone has some experience with it. As such, I was not surprised to read a Family First release claiming that New Zealand kids almost top the world in the most bullied stats, suffering bullying at a rate of almost 50 per cent above the international average. The release refers to a Herald article on the report at the source of the stats and touches on some of the strategies schools are adopting to overcome bullying and the criticisms the new government minister, Anne Tolley, has made of them;
The previous Government has made half-hearted attempts at addressing the issue, with a series of checklist cards released last year. But it’s action we need. And holding up a card while you’re being bullied – well, that’s not going to work.
All year we have battled bullying as our 13 year old son, Christian, has completed his first year in high school. Christian has Aspergers Syndrome and has a very high IQ when it comes to analytical and spatial reasoning, genius level – he is amazing, but struggles with what he calls “the irrational and inconsistent way adults relate to each other.” The textbooks say he has a ‘social disability so struggles with social issues’ but having raised Christian I am not sure that “disability” is the right term, I would say he is just more perceptive than most of us.
When he was 4 he asked me why adults lie to each other so often. I asked him what he meant and he said that they say they like someone’s dress or their cooking but they don’t really. He explained, that when someone gives him a present for Christmas and they ask him if he likes it he gets in trouble if he tells them he doesn’t, that it is a dumb present.
Further, when you go to someone’s house for dinner you always ask what you can bring even though you know that they will answer they don’t want you to bring anything. When you get to dinner you offer to clear away the dishes and to wash them but you know when you offer that they will tell you not to. Your offers are token gestures that you don’t really mean and worse than that, every adult you say them to also knows you don’t really mean them because they know that you know that the correct answer is to refuse the offers of help but if you don’t offer you are not a good guest. Why is it good manners to lie and pretend to be sincere? Isn’t telling the truth more important than hurting someone’s feelings or not being a good guest?
Christian gets bullied because he is different and at times annoying to the other teenage boys he goes to school with; he finds teenagers as frustrating to understand as most adults do and often says things deliberately designed to expose the stupidity of their reasoning and he still has not mastered a good way to express frustration publicly, so he can make irritating noises at times when he is not sure how to respond appropriately.
His take on the anti-bullying strategies the ministry has in place is perceptive. During children’s programming after school there are TV commercials about bullying put out by whichever government Anne Tolley was referring to. Christian says of them:
The ads on TV tell you what bullying is and that you should not have to put up with it, but what they should be doing is telling people not to bully in the first place. Their focus is wrong.
Christian has made the same observation and criticism of his school’s attempts to manage the bullying he has suffered all year. The school’s focus was all about what Christian could do to minimise the bullying. Yes, he is annoying and he should work on that and yes strategies should cut both ways; Christian accepted all this but he still felt that the primary focus should be on the unacceptability of the behaviour.
Christian was not bullied as horrifically as the cases that make the news but this year he has been hit, shoved, knocked to the ground, attacked with a screw driver, shoved into a wall, been surrounded by a group of kids unable to escape, had his property taken, been made the butt of school jokes and filmed on someone’s cell phone camera having his pants pulled down which led him to weeks of internet searching after school for the footage. He has come home with cuts, bruises and has lived in fear of returning to school and with self-doubt. Yet no one got stood down or expelled for hurting him all year and to our knowledge, no one’s parents were contacted over their treatment of him. There were very few repeat offenders over the year, it was more there was a culture of bullying that many kids engaged in.
The school, following the ministry’s guidelines, instead had multiple meetings with us and worked hard with their staff putting strategies to protect Christian in place – they even waived their policy of waiting for a year of knowing the child and put him in one of the top streams mid-year after I suggested that the brighter kids might not respond with their fists so readily. The kids did get detentions, were talked to and told off and made to apologise and most did not re-offend against Christian but none of these, we and Christian felt, were sufficient consequences as none of them countered the culture problem the school and Christian faced.
What we want is an end to the focus on what the victim should be doing and the need to understand the bully and a return to the message that bullying is unnaceptable and will not be tolerated. Zero tolerance sends a very loud and clear message but zero tolerance is not govt approved. Let’s hope that that changes under National.