Boxing in the bullies;Bullying

11th June 1999 at 01:00
From September all schools must have an anti-bullying policy, for despite all attempts to stamp it out, it still goes on. Wendy Wallace talks to victims who feel let down by schools and to headteachers about beating the bullies.

The case of James Hudson, the gay 18-year-old Leeds Grammar pupil who had his nose broken in the common room by a homophobic fellow pupil, highlights the potentially devastating effects of bullying on children's education.

James - who is studying for four A-levels - was in the sixth form common room in a free period on the morning of March 22 when another 18-year-old walked over to him, put his hands round his neck and headbutted him. "There was blood everywhere. The whole common room fell silent," says James.

"It was agonising. I couldn't sleep for three days because of the pain, my teeth went all numb and I had two black eyes."

The assailant - who has pleaded guilty to the assault - was suspended for a week and then resumed his A-levels. James Hudson, however, has not been to school, except to sit his exams under special arrangements in a separate room.

While the physical effects of the attack are now subsiding, the effects on James's academic career may be longlasting. "I'm not going back while he's there. I wouldn't feel safe," he says.

James has a university offer conditional on his getting three grade Bs in his A-levels. But he was unable to revise over Easter and has not settled back into school work. "I've lost a full month's teaching and I've found it hard to concentrate since," he says. The family is now contemplating legal action against Leeds Grammar School.

Parents and children can feel even more injured by what they perceive as a school's failure to deal with bullies than by the actual assaults. For over a year, "Daisy", a bright 14-year-old at a popular north London comprehensive, has been one of a number of targets of a five-strong girl gang in her Year 10 group. "They started calling me 'bitch' and 'slag' and writing things about me all over the toilets and the streets," she says.

Once they followed her home and massed in her garden, calling on her to come out and fight; another time one threatened to kill her with a knife.

The effects on Daisy have been profound. "I became scared to walk about," she says. "I wouldn't leave the house alone. I couldn't concentrate because I was always thinking about them. I missed about one quarter of Year 9 because I couldn't face going to school, and I failed my SATs really badly."

Daisy's mother says her daughter appeared to lose her identity as a result of the prolonged bullying, which ranged from name-calling and threats to pushing and hair-pulling. "She went from being a friendly, carefree girl to someone totally lacking in confidence. But everyone's trying to keep it secret - the victims, the bullies and the schools."

Last month Daisy was attacked by the girls on the local high street. They felled her, banged her head on the pavement, pulled out clumps of hair and kicked her. No action has been taken either by the school - because it was off the premises - or the police.

From this September all schools will be required to have anti-bullying policies. Many already do, but developmental psychologist Dieter Wolke of the University of Hertfordshire points to the difficulty of arriving at a catch-all policy. Children respond differently to bullying and attacks, he says.

"Some will say 'I'll show you'; others give up, lose self-esteem. Other students start to get headaches or stomach aches, and stay off school.

"The coping mechanisms are quite different, and no policy will cover all children.."

But is anyone dealing with the bullies? Victoria Thomson (not her real name) was at home cooking supper when her daughter fell through the door. The random victim of assault by a group of older girls, 13-year-old Maggie had lost a front tooth and was cut around her eyes and bruised all over. "My first instinct was to phone the police but when she started passing out I called an ambulance instead," says Maggie's mother.

The attack was witnessed by a number of other children; the attackers were well-known and attended a different school from Maggie. But a police officer who arrived later that night to take a statement advised Victoria Thomson to "sort it out yourself", saying a successful prosecution was unlikely.

And Maggie's school, although sympathetic, did not follow through on its promise to liaise on the matter with the other girls' school.

Nor were the long-term effects of the attack - which took place three years ago - understood by the school, believes Victoria. "When it happened she was a lovely kid. She was polite, giving and always got good reports. She wanted to be a vet at the time and we had several rabbits.

"When she got beaten up, she closed up. At first she couldn't speak because her mouth was all swollen up. Afterwards she wouldn't talk about it and I wasn't allowed to either. She lost interest in her pets overnight. She organised local protection for herself, with big boys, and they're still her protection to this day."

Maggie's school performance fell through the floor. Now in her GCSE year, her predictions are for grades D and E in all subjects. Her mother thinks the school could have helped her more.

"She lost confidence in a very big way. Her marks went right down, and I suggested to the school that there was a link between what had happened to her and her decline. But nothing came of it. Now they've stopped answering my calls.

"When it happened they sent us a card signed by everyone, including the head. But I would have liked them to have watched Maggie with the attack in mind. She did have the potential to do as well as any other bright kid. She's been very damaged."

At The Grays School in Essex the "bully box" is a vital piece of school equipment. Resembling a letter box and attached to a wall in a corridor, its is unlocked and emptied daily by a senior teacher who holds the only key. Deputy head Simon Viccars explains: "It's the school's answer to ChildLine; children can write in anonymously and it is taken seriously. The authority for dealing with bullying rests with staff. I know that's not considered fashionable, but we believe it's our responsibility.

"Messages are mainly from key stage 3 pupils, usually one or two a week. Around half concern a friend. Very few are anonymous, and those which don't name names are difficult to investigate. Others are followed up through interviews with the pupils and witnesses, then dealt with according to our code on bullying. The box is not used for agony aunt or malicious purposes."

The anti-bullying policy at this 900-pupil 11 to 16 grant-maintained school is not just a piece of paper, but "a framework for action" in which everybody knows what to do about bullying. "The policy is communicated everywhere - from homework diaries to classroom walls - and we're accountable to it every hour of every day because we publicise it so widely.

"There are three codes of practice: one for pupils, one for all school employees and one for parents, setting out what they should do if they become aware of bullying. The school charter says 'The Grays School is a telling school' - because in our experience if you don't know about it you can't do anything about it. It may not be "cool" to tell, but the anonymity of the bully box takes away some of the stigma.

"We never fail to investigate an issue. We take every report at face value. And in this school it doesn't matter who gets told - the important thing is that they respond as the framework says they will.

"Four years ago we audited every pupil and member of staff about their perceptions of bullying. We found the areas around school that people were most wary of and rerouted our 16 CCTV cameras and duty teams on to the difficult areas. And the policy was written by a working group of pupils, parents, governors and staff.

"Now levels of reported incidents have dropped dramatically. But it's not something that you stand back from. We revisit our policy often. We take a lesson out every term to remind pupils of the code of practice and keep it high profile. It outlines everybody's course of action."

Sue Siefert is less comfortable with the word "bully". With 32 years teaching behind her, she says she has encountered few true bullies. She says: "What you're trying to say to the child is 'it's not you that's the problem, it's your behaviour'. So they're not left with the label 'bully'."

Siefert was brought in as acting head of the 369-pupil Montem Primary in Islington a year ago, after the school was judged by OFSTED to have serious weaknesses, including a breakdown in behaviour. Calm is now restored.

She says: "We have contracts for persistent bullies, about general behaviour and attitude, covering what they will try and do and what the school will do for them. It has to be a positive contract, not one-way and not bullying the child in other words.

"What is a bully? The word is bandied about and kids get labelled, but in 32 years of teaching I've only met what I consider true bullying a few times. Most of it is children getting cross with each other, or having a punch-up or teasing.

"You have to make children feel 'this is our school, and this is how we want to behave. It's not just run by teachers, it's a community'. That's how you do it.

"We do have sanctions - children have detentions or miss their lunch play. We have a homeschool book for some, which is invaluable because then you have a dialogue with the parent, and the child knows you're having that dialogue. Although we've not necessarily had co-operation from parents.

"Very often when there's a problem the child is manifesting that something in their own lives is not right. What we see in a child's behaviour at school is how they're feeling about life."

William Atkinson warns against complacency when it comes to bullying. "We treat bullying as potentially a big problem and take a range of precautions," says the headteacher at the Phoenix School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Hammersmith.

"I interview all parents and children on entry to the school and tell them it's imperative to tell parents and a teacher if there is an incident. Bullying is an explicit part of the PSE programme and is explored through drama in the lower part of the school. I also talk about it in assemblies with different year groups, including the possible dire end consequences for some victims.

"It can be just people falling out, especially girls. Someone doesn't talk to them for a few days, then others join in. Emotional bullying like this is more difficult to capture and handle and less likely to be reported by children. One of the planks of our policy is to talk - to get the participants to have an insight into the feelings of the person at the other end. Some of it is unintentional.

"Sometimes I bring all the parents and children involved together. I play the referee, and we try to talk about the issues from the different perspectives. It can be the first time space has been generated to hear other views in a non-threatening way, although it needs to be very strongly refereed or it can make things worse. When people are bruised inside it is highly problematic.

"We need a lot of people alert to the possibility of bullying, and when it does occur the institution needs to demonstrate to all that it is absolutely forbidden and unacceptable and that there are consequences.

"We know here that we haven't got this thing completely sewn up, but no institution in this land can be complacent for one second because so much goes unseen. It's the attitude of the institution that is important. Bullying should not be brushed aside, because then people feel that the school lets them down as well."

Since April last year, Kay Bickley has been headteacher at the 903-pupil Blackheath Bluecoat CE in south London, the school murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence went to. This year the 900-pupil school is taking part, with others in the borough, in an anti-bullying project which is one of a number of initiatives on social inclusion.

Bickley says: "We have a very strong pastoral system already, with "chaplains" attached to each year and a safe haven in the learning support department where pupils can go.

"But we felt that often young people want to talk to someone their own age and would open up to an older brother or sister figure. We began BIONIC (Believe It Or Not I Care) early in the spring term.

"We first surveyed a sample of students, staff, parents and governors and, using that information, sent 25 Year 10 and 11 students on a two-day residential course where they were given skills to counsel peers and act as mediators.

"It was a mixed bunch who went, boys and girls, from a range of ethnic identities, and they're really into it. They're actually being used by the kids, who share their difficulties, not just about bullying.

"It's too easy for schools to say 'oh well, bullying isn't an issue here'. We felt it was realistic to say that there was some, and we wanted to address the issue. It's also part of a framework to reduce exclusions because being a perpetrator of bullying is something we would have excluded for before. Exclusions were excessive here but are down 50 per cent this year.

"One area of sensitivity is that if students felt there was racial harassment, or a racist incident outside school, then school follows the borough policy of recording incidents and acting quickly. The students are very aware that this was Stephen Lawrence's school, and student counsellors knew they needed to tell students that they would have to alert staff to incidents of that nature.

"Racist incidents and name-calling are not particularly an issue in school. Post-Macpherson, students have shared issues about no-go zones in Greenwich, saying you can't go to certain areas at night without expecting to be chased down the street. And this term some students have had very unpleasant racist literature pushed through the doors. We alerted the police to that, and they moved on it.

"The Macpherson report and our approach has opened out debate in the school so we can hear what's going on. We try very hard to make sure children who've got troubles have a forum where they can share that, and to empower our students."

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