Going against the current: bullying in schools

With the new school year now well underway, TEODOR RELJIC considers the contemporary scenario of the most regrettable, but sadly enduring, aspect of the educational prospect: bullying

“We are going against the current, but in order to do that, we first have to know what the current is…” Speaking from her office in Hamrun – expansive and functional, it forms part of the Dun Gorg Preca Primary School – former guidance counsellor Sandra Cortis seems vocal and pro-active about her current post: as Services Manager at the Education Psycho-Social Services Department.

The Department offers a helping hand to schools in cases of psychological and social problems, normally using individual guidance counsellors – “our little soldiers,” Cortis calls them – to serve as intermediaries between schools and the Department.

Unsurprisingly, the persistent problem of bullying takes up a large chunk of the Department’s time and, bolstered by the recently announced ‘Respect for All Framework’ government initiative, Cortis and her colleagues appear keen to seek out long-term solutions that would nip the problem of bullying in the bud.

The “current”, in this case, would be the tide of negative factors that contribute to bullying: be they simple cases of peer pressure among students or thornier issues, such as long-standing problems at home.

“I know this from my years as a guidance counsellor – you have to get as much of a feel for the problem as you can. So if, say, during a guidance session a student mentions a particular local pub or bar where these behaviours are taking root, then it’s up to us to take initiative and visit the bar ourselves to suss out exactly what’s going on there…”

The ultimate aim for Cortis is that “every students feels safe at school”, though the challenges to this goal are many.

Elisavet Arkolaki, who as founder of the online portal Malta Mum – a discussion forum for Maltese mothers – is familiar with the grievances of many local parents, describes bullying as being “different from normal social conflict, and one that requires an adult’s intervention”.

“In bullying, what happens most of the time is that someone’s identity is attacked – as in ‘you are silly’, ‘you have big ears’. Someone’s looks and learning abilities are a core part of who they are, cannot be changed, and thus leave the individual feeling attacked, powerless and emotionally damaged.”

Arkolaki also suggests that Cortis’s own Student Services should be consulted if the problem persists, though she also notes that children who are bullied tend to be ashamed of the fact, and may not be all that willing to speak up.

Cortis reassures that “individual sessions are held with the victims so that they can voice their concerns in a safe environment, while building healthy relationships with different members of the support staff”.

She is heartened by the fact that “we get self-referrals nowadays: students are coming to us themselves – our team is known to the school children, and this helps us a lot,” Cortis said, insisting that the focus is on the “well being” of the student all throughout.

Though she claims that parents are ultimately “the best partners” when it comes to combating bullying – and Cortis insists that her colleagues take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach whenever they notice that problematic family structures are at the core of bullying behaviour – she claims that the attitude of some parents leaves a lot to be desired.

“While holding awareness talks for parents, the audience that we usually target does not turn up and it is therefore difficult to reach them… so we end up “preaching to the converted”.

What about the web?

Online bullying is arguably one of the greatest contemporary challenges to parents and educators, by dint of the fact that it’s not only difficult to adequately monitor, but also because, unlike bullying in the ‘analog’ world, it can keep going on long after school hours.

Social media like Facebook and Twitter allow the bully to victimise their targets relentlessly, while forums like Ask.Fm have been consistently criticised for facilitating cruel humiliation of their users – so much so that they’ve even led to cases of suicide.

While stating that cyber-bullying is “one of the best-documented aspects of digital culture studies,” digital strategist Alex Grech concedes that the way we approach social media and the internet may need to be substantially ‘re-wired’ if we are to tackle the problem in a concrete way.

“The only way out is to re-engineer our education. We’re still stuck in 20th century paradigms. We’ve invested in teaching young people ICT skills, but have done very little in the way of acquiring digital literacies. By this, I mean having the knowledge and ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technology tools,” Grech said.

Sandra Cortis in fact identifies the onset of the internet – particularly that of social media – as paving the way to new bullying behaviours.

“Since the opening of our anti-bullying service in the late 90s, it is believed that the nature of bullying incidents hasn’t really changed except for the onset of cyber-bullying since the incursion of social media,” Cortis said, while also speculating that “perhaps the incidence of bullying might give the impression that it has increased, however it would be wise to question whether this is due to more awareness, which leads to wider reporting of the issue”.

Cortis adds that parents often admit to feeling “helpless” when faced with this new technology.

“Some parents feel that they do not have the necessary IT know-how to deal with this… so we do our best to teach our students certain basics: who to accept as your friend, how to block users on Facebook and Twitter, and so on,” Cortis said.

“But it’s also important that parents and pupils abide by certain laws that are there to protect them. So if the law states that children below the age of 13 shouldn’t have a Facebook account, then that law should be followed,” she added.

Grech however wishes for a more thorough overhaul of the way schools navigate through digital media, stating that, “what we have right now is a recipe for disaster”.

“My 12 year-old is taught at school how to develop a PowerPoint for his computer driving licence – those kind of skills are pretty outdated now, and easily acquired online via video tutorials. I’d much rather he’s helped to acquire digital literacy skills than learn how to use Word. The trouble is that educators themselves have yet to recognise the paradigm shift.”

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