P. James was a lovely boy with red hair, hazel eyes and a quirky sense of humor. His passion was Animals, Legos, Minecraft, Chocolate Ice Cream and Road Trips. He was born in 2001, slightly underweight and had to spend the next 35 days in the NICU. His diet then was oxygen and liquid through a tube. What this did was permanently discolor his teeth to a mottled yellow, as if he never brushed. When he started going to school, the bullying started from 2nd grade – Why didn’t he brush his teeth, Why was his hair red, why did he wear nerdy glasses, Why was he so small, it went on and on…
As he grew up, he kept thinking why were people being so mean to him? He would ask his Mom –
“Why can’t people be nice?”
His Mom used to tell him things that all Moms the world over would say, you’re special, you’re smart, we love you etc. As James grew up, he would place more value to what his peers said and not his parents. By 2013, he was internalizing all the abuse at school, and started blaming himself for being alive. He thought and sometimes said as much that his parents would be better off without him! His parents took him to the local Emergency Room and then to a Therapist. For a while, it seemed to be working and in 2014, his parents moved to another district and shifted his School, thinking the abuse would stop. He was in 8th Grade by then.
In the new school, he made one friend and hoped to make more but because his likes differed from other kids, he was being picked upon here too. He was being called “loser” and “geek” but now he had started keeping this from his parents. He told his Principal, who asked him to avoid the other kid. Around a month later he told his Mom what was happening and added “Mom, you can’t fix this.” He went into his room and hung himself.
James died on October 13, 2014 and donated his organs which lived on in six other people. Weeks later, another classmate’s mother told James’ mother that the boy who tormented him reportedly said “I’m not surprised. That boy was a freak.” The bully lived on, the victim moved on to another world.
29th June, 2016, Bangalore, India
RB, a class IX student at a prominent 140 year old school in Bangalore, returned from school, went to the terrace of his 10thFloor apartment and jumped. He didn’t survive. The investigation, later revealed, that he was being bullied by another student travelling with him in the same pool car. He left a note to this effect in his bag. Another life snuffed out by a similar aged child by being mean.
Bullying isn’t an isolated incident and neither does it happen only in schools. All educations institutions, corporates, play grounds and even in large families, it happens everywhere. Not just students, teachers too are part of it sometimes. A student who is lagging behind in studies or in sports, is hauled up in front of others and told you are worthless, you will fail miserably in life. Sometimes parents or relatives say the same, look at so and so, he’s doing so well, why can’t you be like him?
Corporate Bullying – At the Workplace
The Manager tells his sub-ordinate “I’m not paying you salary to hear your excuses, I will kick your butt and throw you out on the road” in front of his colleagues or peers in the monthly review meeting. This form of mental harassment is omnipresent and is taking a silent toll on society, everyday.
Mental health issues are perhaps the most neglected and stigmatized health issue around the world, and bullying is a large contributor to the overall problem. It not only affects the victim, but also the witnesses and the bullies themselves.
What do we do to prevent and eradicate this menace? Lot of the work has to begin at the homes, early on, then in schools. While we raise awareness about the problem, discuss the consequences, we need to teach our kids to be Nice and Kind to others. Easier said than done, if the parents themselves aren’t nice to others around them, how do they teach their kids?
This is where mass communication of the cause and effect by government agencies, schools, NGO’s come into play. What doesn’t work are methods like Peer Mediation – how are small kids supposed to tell others what not to do? It might lead to more bullying. Punishment may sometimes lead to resentment, counseling the tormentors and their parents and the tormented and their parents help. Bystander Intervention – may only work sometimes, not always.
What really helps are two things – building a Positive and Welcoming atmosphere at School and Social & Emotional Learning for all.
Bullying in School Atmosphere
It’s difficult to exactly pinpoint but is a combination of factors like how children greet each other and their teachers, how problems are resolved by forming teams, how kids can be made to collaborate and focus on positive and healthy development, not just in academic matters. Kids need to be told that academics are not the only metric for success in life, neither is earning money, you can be bad in studies but good in arts or sports or whatever, but first learn to be a good human being, kind and nice to others.
Here, leadership of the school is the primary generator of these values, who should not trivialize bullying as a normal rite of children growing up. Do they promote positive psychological health of the children in their care or rely overtly on punishing any behavior that’s out of line? They need to guide developmental processes and intervene only when something goes wrong, that too assertively. They need to value and encourage positive feelings and emotions in the children, be empathic to their needs. Teachers also need to follow and observe the same principles, since they are the day to day care takers of these children, and children look up to them for mentorship, guidance and value learning.
Social & Emotional Learning –
This involves teaching both Teachers and Students skills of self awareness, self management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationship management both personal and professional. Research shows that SEL (Social & Emotional Learning) improves emotional well-being, regulates self behavior, improves peer relationships in class and encourages kind and helpful behavior among students. It will bring down anxiety, emotional distress and instances of depressive behavior, disruptive behavior like aggression, anger, rage, bullying and sometimes violence. It will simultaneously improve academic achievement, creativity and leadership. Developing emotional and social competence and positive peer to peer interactions prevent bullying and reduce bullying tendencies. The entire process continues to show its positive effects in life after school too e.g. Fewer divorces and lower unemployment.
Teachers also benefit from these programs, they become more positive towards their students, mange their classrooms better and encourage creativity, choice and autonomy in their students. But for all these to be effective, the theory should be all pervasive, not just a class at the end of an academic year. It should be everyday, part of the school’s DNA, its culture and its values. Taught every day, practiced every day.