Until it happens to you

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Cyber-bullying got so out of hand at one East Renfrewshire school that the headteacher had to take drastic action. Illustration by Hashim Akib

WHILE THEIR children are at home, parents fondly imagine they are safe. But this is no longer true, says Helen Glen, the headteacher at Springhill Primary in East Ren-frewshire: "It's as if the back wall of your house isn't there. Your kids are physically inside, but they're also out in the world exposed to all kinds of danger."

Nowadays, that can include a particularly unpleasant form of high-tech bullying that can damage a whole class, she discovered.

"Last year, there was something wrong with our Primary 6s and we couldn't get to the bottom of it. They'd had a succession of teachers, which hadn't helped. But there seemed to be more to it than that. They didn't seem to like themselves very much."

The school tried a residential visit. They brought in drama workers and art specialists. Nothing worked. "Eventually, I realised something was going on outside the school," says Mrs Glen. "So I called a parents' meeting. Some of the things that came out at that meeting shocked me."

Pupils were using mobile phones and computer chatrooms to bully classmates.

The humiliation felt by the victims was particularly intense be-cause these messages were being seen by everyone.

"They were hitting 'send to all'," says Mrs Glen. "So everybody in the class could read them. One parent said some had even made a CD taunting particular classmates about their appearance."

While some parents knew only snippets of what was going on, most had no inkling, and nor did the teachers. The adults were communicating in slow, old-fashioned ways, while the kids were using instant messages to create a thoroughly negative group dynamic.

Turning that into a positive took imagination. "We went back to something I had used many years ago, which was developed at Jordanhill school by Steve Bell and Fred Rendell," says Mrs Glen.

"We got the parents in to work with the children on creating a community, with houses, shops and people, all with their own individual histories."

The initial aim was to get the class working together on a creative project, with lots of chat and constructive engagement. But there was more to it than that.

"The people who lived in the street all had names and personalities. The kids called it Cherry-blossom Lane. They built a frieze and put it on the wall.

"Once they'd done that, and were really involved with the people in the street, I sent them for a bite to eat in another part of the school. While they were away, I vandalised Cherryblossom Lane. I threw litter around and wrote graffiti on walls. I broke fences and smashed windows. Then I joined them for a cup of tea and a chat.

"When they came back and saw what had happened, there was a stunned silence."

Taking advantage of the shared feeling of outrage and upset, Mrs Glen talked to the children about how people feel when something of theirs is tarnished. "We talked about the ripples that go out when you do something hurtful.

"We got them to talk and write about their feelings, and how we can protect people. We spoke about working as a team, about looking out for each other.

Only at the end of that first session did I mention cyber-bullying."

The next session will focus on that particular topic, Mrs Glen says. "The campus cop from Barrhead High will come in to talk about it. We are organising computer safety workshops for parents. We are using East Ren-frewshire's new anti-bullying guidelines. We are going to be working at this until Easter.

"But what we've done already has been beneficial to relationships. The first night when the kids and parents were working on Cherryblossom Lane, it snowed. When they saw it, the kids got really excited. But nobody threw a single snowball."

Cherryblossom Lane was created using Storyline methods, which originated in Scotland but have been adopted elsewhere: www.answers.comtopicstoryline-method

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