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If you're bullied no one can hear you scream

EIGHT out of 10 pupils who are badly bullied tell nobody about their despair. They should be talking to a teacher they can trust, a brother or sister, but they bottle it up and sink deeper into difficulty.

"Once they get inside your head and you believe what they are saying, you are really in trouble," Brendan Byrne, a Dublin counsellor and author, told a national anti-bullying network conference in Haddington last weekend.

The vast majority of pupils were not victims and not bullies, although everyone was tested from time to time. Nevertheless many young lives were blighted - scars that continued into adult life. "It happens in the workplace with adults," Dr Byrne said.

Dr Byrne, a former headteacher, said that in primary schools three out of four incidents took place in the playground. Toilets, cloakrooms and corridors were other danger areas but in secondary schools bullying tends to occur inside classrooms during lessons. Routes to and from school can become unsafe. "School buses, especially in rural areas when you are on them for longer, are a moving prison," Dr Byrne said.

His view was that it was impossible to eradicate bullying but something had to be done. Pupils who are not stopped pass on bad behaviour to their own children. Bullies themselves needed help.

Attitudes to bullying had changed enormously over the past 10 years in Scotland and Ireland. Pupils were more confident about speaking out and parents would not tolerate situations that affected their children. Most teachers a decade ago would have stayed out of bullying: now there was an awareness they had to intervene.

But a public approach almost always made the situation worse. Children who were picked on were put under more pressure because they were seen to need teachers to stand up for them.

As a researcher and author, he favoured an alternative approach. "There is a ringleader and many people involved and we need to separate them. It is very bad practice to discuss initial bullying with the whole class. It exacerbates it and puts more pressure on the person who is being picked on. So what I talk about is a low-key approach. Don't blow it up," Dr Byrne said.

"The ringleader controls the bullying, manipulates it and orchestrates it. What you need to do is find that person and take them out on their own and sit down with them. What you find quite often behind the brash exterior is a weak, fragile, insecure person who is making sure they get to somebody first."

Teachers had to find out why bullies bullied - "punish behaviour not the person" - and turn negatives into positives, giving them responsibility "perhaps for the first time in their lives". School sanctions had to be implemented for the good of the majority.

Pupils who were bullied had to open up about their feelings, be told it was not their fault and have their confidence boosted in and out of school. They had to be involved in as many activities as possible, have all their talents and abilities recognised and made to feel good about their appearance. Most of all they had to be taught to be assertive and keep their friends.

"One of the reasons they do not open up is shame. If you imagine you are being called big, fat, ugly or stupid for long enough by enough people, you begin to believe it. If you have parents that love you, the last thing you want is to bring that shame home," Dr Byrne said.

Parents should contact the school with specific complaints, keeping an accurate record of dates and places, and identify the ringleaders. Pressed by a parent about action when the school refuses to accept there is a problem, Dr Byrne urged parents to be persistent in a "reasoned, non-confrontational way" and to keep going back.

Alan Blackie, director of education in East Lothian, told the meeting he was bullied at school in Haddington. He used different routes to go home, making sure he had pals with him, sticking to the main street or close to the local bobby. "Eventually I thumped one of them and to my chagrin I was given the belt and I was the wronged person," Mr Blackie said.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Sudden changes. Children never talk about school, never bring anybody home and give up most of what they were involved in.

* Asking to be taken to school or picked up.

* Damage to personal property such as books or clothing.

* Unexplained changes of mood, particularly on a Sunday.

* Frequent minor illnesses such as upset stomachs and headaches.

* Requests for money because of extortion.

* Unexplained cuts or bruises.

* Recurring nightmares and bedwetting.

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