Heads have a duty to stamp out bullies

14th May 2004 at 01:00
A recent court order to stop the actions of a 14-year-old bully might be the catalyst to stop headteachers pontificating that their schools don't have a bullying problem. Paula Thorburn of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh is the recipient of the interdict, the aim of which is to protect her from another 14-year-old girl.

In a separate court action, the victim's mother has secured legal aid to sue Edinburgh City Council for failing to protect her daughter. Cameron Fyfe, the family's lawyer, has stated that, increasingly, parents are seeking legal redress because they feel that education authorities are not tackling bullies.

Undoubtedly, bullying is increasing. Childline Scotland receives a constant stream of calls from desperate victims. Even if I only gather in anecdotal evidence from my extended family, I am alarmed by how incidents of intimidation are out of control. Are authorities and schools doing enough to combat it?

However much schools do, it can never be enough. The more schools do to address the issue, the more the problem is exposed as an endemic curse in Scottish schools. Compare it to providing health services. You make available a new treatment believing that there is a demand for it - quite how large the need is becomes apparent when a burgeoning waiting list develops and your resources can't get to the bottom of the problem. Thus in schools with anti-bullying measures, but this is no reason not to act.

Schools know what they should be doing - have a fully implemented anti-bullying policy so that there is no gap between the rhetoric and reality. But, even then, bullying can still happen right under our noses. A menacing but fleeting glance, an almost inaudible passing threat in the corridor, a coded text message after school: you can't always get a handle on these actions, however much you want to.

But schools should be able to guarantee firm action when bullying is reported. It's not easy for pupils and their parents to report bullying for fear that this will escalate the situation. Sadly, this fear is often justified, with schools tending to take softly-softly approaches which merely result in the bully saying all the right things but later turning up the heat on the victim. It's so depressing.

Somehow, schools have to be allowed to stamp much more vigorously on pupils who show aggression towards others. The Scottish Executive is not taking a grip of this problem but rather, with its impotent policy on inclusion, is allowing the offending pupils to remain at their desks.

At a recent teachers' meeting, I met a young female teacher who confided that she is currently being intimidated by two fourth-year boys in her class. Because the bullying is cunning and almost hidden she has been told that no one can act until visible aggressive action is taken against her.

If teachers feel vulnerable, what hope is there for the pupils?

Parents must also consider their responsibilities. A recent crackdown on underage drinking in Moray confirmed suspicions that such behaviour is widespread here, with children as young as 13 roaming the streets in a drunken state. If parents are irresponsible to that extent regarding their children's personal safety, then I'm certain that these children will not have been taught any meaningful moral values.

Too many of our pupils do not understand why it is wrong to intimidate others and this is what schools are up against in the fight against bullying. Cameron Fyfe has various cases pending. I wish his clients well in their fight for justice but, if they really want to make a difference, they should also consider suing the parents of the bullies.

And headteachers should stop claiming that there is no bullying in their schools. We all know that it's an outright lie.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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