Ensure zero tolerance for bullying in schools

SOMETHING drastic must be done to check bullying in schools. This repetitive and aggressive behaviour towards another person designed to belittle or control that individual has reached alarming proportions. Official statistics confirm that there were more than 14,000 such cases between 2012 and 2015. It's on the rise in secondary schools; and even worse in residential schools.

The National Human Rights Society, known by its Malay acronym Hakam (founded by two former PMs), just released its Report on Bullying (available at https://hakam.org.my/wp/2018/01/30/hakam-releases-report-on-bullying-in-...). This is what it says.

Physical bullying is becoming increasingly more brutal. More prevalent and insidious though is verbal and social bullying, according to Dr Goh Chee Leong, a leading psychologist on the subject. It takes the form of name-calling, gossiping, stealing money, isolation and exclusion. Facilitated no doubt by cyberbullying through digital devices via SMS, WhatsApp and the like. This includes: sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else via digital devices – cell phones, computers and tablets. Personal or private information about someone else is shared online causing embarrassment or humiliation. This is not the same as spreading fake news – as touted by those who support this new anti-fake news law.

CyberSecurity Malaysia, a national government agency, reveals that cyberbullying is growing. It occurs almost every day among students, with 338 cases reported last year compared with 291 in 2014.

About 84% of children in Malaysia suffer from some form of bullying, with 33% having been bullied online.

Why do people bully? Bye Bye Bully – which raises awareness about bullying in SMK schools – says because bullies want to secure popularity and respect through the assertion of power over another.

The consequences on the victims are horrific. Such as lowered self-esteem, deep depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The child victim feels isolated and alienated. The effects can extend into adulthood fostering a lack of trust and confidence in building new relationships and contacts.

"To make things worse", says Dr Goh, "more youngsters are now suffering from mental health problems" referencing the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey. About 4.2 million Malaysians aged 16 and above suffered from mental problems.

So, the problem is crying out for help. And urgently too. Who can help?

First, parents and the home environment play a critical role as children emulate their parents' behaviour. This embeds in a child's psyche. Abuse or physical means of discipline at home may transfer to a child's behaviour at school and the way they treat others.

Second, teachers and schools are also crucial and play a larger role in students' lives than simply teaching the syllabus. Their role is akin to "school parents". They teach students manners, life skills, teamwork and coping mechanisms. Indeed a "training ground for life and of life".

The state should have a limited role in tackling bullying in schools. Else, schools may then comply with any regulatory measures at a superficial level.

More essential is a school's motivation to address bullying head-on. And to foster a cultural change to demonstrate that bullying is not acceptable. When a bully is isolated and gains no support from his peers, victims are more likely to report their experiences. Additionally, the emphasis should be developing empathy and students shown what it would feel like to be on the receiving end.

Presently, the majority of schools rely on ad hoc procedures. Consequently, students do not know what to expect as a response to bullying; this also does not necessarily encourage them (or bystanders) to report incidents of bullying either. PAGE spoke of the damaging effect on students' welfare when schools prioritise their reputation and grades and fail to deal properly with reported incidents of bullying.

Police involvement should be restricted to cases which involve criminal activity as beyond that police are not trained to deal with bullying involving children.

It was also important to introduce psychologists and trained counsellors. Only 25% of schools have properly trained and certified counsellors; the remainder have teachers who assume this role without the necessary training in handling the problem.

The Ministry of Education could allocate funds where schools have insufficient funds for this purpose. Or as PAGE proposed, psychologists could be allocated only to problem schools or be rotated among such schools.

Forging strong relationships between teachers and students could help engender trust and continuous communication and encourage students to talk about their experiences; and inspire confidence that where cases of bullying are reported, action will follow.

Finally, most experts agree that it is entirely feasible to bring about change to the school environment to ensure zero tolerance of this social scourge. After all, we must guarantee that every child has the right to feel safe and protected at school.

Gurdial is the vice-president of Hakam. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com