School pays for bullying

I’ve written very recently on the phenomenon of people suing schools. In a decision handed down yesterday, Cox v State of New South Wales [2007] NSWSC 471, a bullied teenager from NSW has been awarded substantial damages and an income for life as a result of bullying sustained while he was at school (primary school and high school). He could not continue at school past Year 7. He still suffers from severe psychiatric problems, including depression and anxiety. The result of Mr Cox’s case is very sad.

Nevertheless, as I have discussed in my previous post on the topic, I am ambivalent about these cases. I was bullied at primary school and high school, partially because I suffered from a disability at that time. There was one particular girl who was a terrible bully, and in retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if she grew up to be a psychopath. Apparently I was a friendly, open child before I went to primary school, but I became very anxious and shy for many years, until my late teens. From that point of view, I feel great sympathy towards Mr Cox. It sounds like the response of the school and the Department was wholly inadequate.

But, being a cynic, I wonder how much anti-bullying policies and action by the school could have achieved. My own experience at high school was that when these issues were raised in the classroom, all the bullies earnestly said that bullying was a terrible thing, and should be dealt with harshly. Did they have any idea that they were bullies themselves? I still wonder. Really the only thing you can do is to take the bully out of the particular class. Even if teachers are vigilant, they cannot always stop bullying in a class.

Another problem with anti-bullying programs is bullies may be diagnosed as suffering from self-esteem problems. This may be so – I am no expert on the psychology of bullying – but a result of this analysis can be that a bully is rewarded with attention for his actions.

Let’s consider a case study. A teacher of my acquaintance told me of a terrible bully in his class. The teacher taught at an ethnically diverse school. This boy was racist and sexist. If he had been an adult, his conduct would have been racially and sexually abusive. The teacher understood that the boy had a difficult family background.

The teacher did his best to try to control this boy, but it was very easy for the boy to do things before the teacher arrived at class, when the teacher had his back turned and was writing on the board or when the teacher was trying to help another student. The teacher reported the boy to the principal. The boy was returned to the class with a “stress balloon”. He was supposed to blow up the balloon every time he felt “stressed”. Instead, he proceeded to disrupt the class by using the “stress balloon” to make fart noises. And he continued to bully students. The teacher could not give his full attention to teaching the class or helping other students.

What can teachers do in these circumstances? And what can the school do? Obviously, the stress balloon is a ridiculous solution. The school could try to tell the child that his conduct is inappropriate, but obviously, a child such as this will not care. The school could also try speaking to the child’s parents. But in the above circumstances, the parents had problems of their own with the boy’s behaviour, and indicated that they could not control him either.

A school can’t easily expel a student or take a student out of a class. Education is a right which we offer to all children, and it’s difficult to make a judgment as to when someone should be denied that opportunity.

However, the case study above indicates that there needs to be some kind of measures which balance the rights of the majority not to be bullied and to receive a proper education against the rights of the bully to be educated. As the situation stood, the class was short-changed because the teacher had to spend a lot of effort controlling the bully which could have been better spent on teaching, and the bully still managed to keep bullying other students. Should there be a school to which bullies are sent? If so, what if the bullies are then hardened and turned into worse bullies? What if the bullies are bullied by other bigger bullies and psychologically injured thereby? And then sue?

I can’t bear the thought of my child coming across bullies at school. It really worries me. Hopefully, I can try to provide her with the love, support and coping strategies she needs to overcome bullies. I am glad that I learned how to deal with bullying better, and how to stand up for myself.  I am also glad that my parents were loving and supportive.

Another the sad fact of life, too, is that once we emerge from school, we still come across bullies all the time. In fact, bullies and psychopaths can do quite well for themselves in the big, bad world. It has been reported in The Times that an American study found that many stockbrokers, as well as many top lawyers and CEOs, had qualities which made them “functioning psychopaths”. They did not have the same emotional engagement with life as other people. {Aside: I knew it! I knew it!}

So whether we learn how to deal with these people at school, or afterwards, it’s inevitable that we will come across them at some stage. The important thing is to ensure that intelligent and promising people are not irredeemably scarred by encounters with bullies. And to stress that it is possible to get through school and become a successful functioning adult even if you were bullied at school.



Filed under depression, education, law, parenthood, society, tolerance, tort law

11 responses to “School pays for bullying

  1. LDU

    I used to be bullied on a regular basis by a class mate who was really fat.

    One day after school he was calling me ‘chinese african boong…chinese african boong’ whilst pulling on my bag straps and trying to deck my pants. His mates were singing along too. The chorus really climbed up my nose so I turned around and gave the little fucker a really good punch in the face .

    He bled and fainted. I got a weeks detention. Was it worth it? Yes. He never called me a ‘chinese african boong’ ever again and we ended up being good friends.

  2. LDU,

    I am afraid that cracking it and attacking the bully can sometimes be the best option in a school context. Usually bullies are terrible cowards.

    I had a similar experience – some girls were throwing crayons at me in Art class. They’d been bugging me all year. I just couldn’t stand it any longer, lost my temper and emptied the whole bucket of crayons down the front of the dress of the worst offender. Then I sat down and continued with my drawing as if nothing happened. I think it really shocked them, because I had always been such a quiet shy person. They never did it again.


  3. I was bullied in school from the third grade on and only wish I had reacted differently. I became very shy and withdrawn and never even told my parents. It took me years to get over it. As a teacher, I tried to stop bullies, but you are right, they wait until teachers are out of sight before striking. We had one poor kid that was a permanent target and suggested to his parents that they move him to another school. They elected to have him stick it out (two years). The teachers secretly wanted him to take up for himself, but he never did.

  4. It is a tough one, and I empathise very much with your worries about your daughter.

    In my opinion, every child is bullied and a bully, though the scale can tip heavily one way or the other.

    I was bullied a lot at school (Dad was a teacher at said school, recipe for disaster, really). But I look back at some of my actions, and cringe, as well.

    I think a major problem is an administrative apathy. Bullying is far too hard for teachers to deal with in a classroom context most of the time – and out of it (lunch hour, say) a near impossibility.

    Administration frequently doesn’t have an interest in actually helping the teachers – their number one priority is keeping the kids till the end of grade ten. The only thing that provokes action is a serious incident, or other parent’s complaints about class time interruptions.

    I think a more formal conflict resolution structure could help alleviate _some_ (never all) of these problems. Perhaps a community conferencing angle or something, I don’t know; I’m not an expert.

    I would say that I think this problem runs deeper, in that carers of all stripes (myself included) tend to accept or even encourage bullying if it is packaged the right way, with the right intensity, or conforming to our own prejudices.

    Funny bullying anecdote: I took revenge on the droogs who picked on me in early high school by poisoning their coke with ipecac syrup and making them convulsively vomit on the bus for about half an hour. I told everyone I did it, and the school admin couldn’t do anything to me – not even a detention – because I had spoken to them four times specifically about the levels of harrassment on that bus, and they never did a thing. Best thing I did in high school by a country mile.

  5. Patrick,

    It’s true that we are all bullied and we are all bullies at different times, in one way or another. I definitely did some things at school that I am ashamed of. Everyone does. And it’s perfectly possible that I hurt someone at school, and I have no idea that I did.

    I like your teasing anecdote. Serves those kids right. Hope they learned their lesson.

    Maybe teasing and learning to deal with teasing is also part of learning boundaries and learning what kind of conduct is acceptable. It’s just very important that it doesn’t get out of hand.

    The other thing to recognise is that sometimes it is good to be pushed to do things you don’t want to do. I have a friend who made me get out and mix with people when I was very shy at the beginning of university. I’m really glad that she did. I guess that’s a “positive” form of “bullying”.


  6. pete m

    It needs to be dealt with by the whole community. As much as I dislike Dr Phil sometimes, this episode:

    was damn good.

    If everyone is involved, then the rest who are not being bullied at that point in time can stand up for the victim. It does work.

    Yes, the bully needs help too.

    Yes, kids need to learn strategies to deal with it – funny how we don’t teach them though.

    I used my smart arse mouth to avoid being bullied physically. Thankfully was never bashed!

    My niece has changed schools due to bullying – her body is a bit like the little girl in Little Miss Sunshine – bit barrel chested – but she also has a parent like attitude due to the way she has been involved in her parents life – sad to see her go through this stage of her life.

    re the case – this kid was bashed 3 times despite the school knowing about his problems – sorry, but they need to pay to force some changes.

  7. And passed out after having his teeth knocked out. Pretty serious stuff.

    I copped a spadeful when attending a middle-class school but coming from a working-class area. Sad to say, a whack in the gob proved most effective, or something equally dramatic (like Patrick’s syrup, or your crayons).

    Years later, a karate sensei for whom I have the greatest respect pointed out that ‘some people only understand the law of the fist’. Unfortunately, he’s right.

  8. I feel that the result in this case was right (it was particularly extreme) but I’m not so sure about suing as a general answer to the problem if that makes sense?

    Skepticlawyer, unfortunately I think your sensei was right. Sometimes people need a real shock to stop what they are doing.

  9. Cherry Ripe

    Unfortunately it starts very early too – my daughter has particular problems with another 2 year-old at child care. LE you may remember a girl at our primary school who from day 1 was particularly sadistic and made all our lives miserable. I often wonder what was going on in her home life. It kind of stopped when I challenged her to a physical fight, although it was nothing like playfights with my brother – all pulling hair and scratching nails (no headlocks or body slams). I remember being very surprised at the time! But what are we supposed to advise our kids – sock em one? It’s not exactly a desirable strategy for either side… but it seems to point to a need for a display of strength of character. The kids who were pretty strong in themselves were less likely to be bullied, but it’s a chicken and egg thing – once you’re targeted, your self-esteem drops and you become more of a target.

    Bullying is a fact of life to some extent. I figure as a parent your first response is to ensure that they have a safe space to come home to, and to encourage them to talk about it, don’t just wait for them to come to you, because they won’t. We tell our little one to say loudly “No, don’t hit me, Robbie!”, which I gather she does now. It seems to have helped, because she feels stronger and it alerts the carers to what’s going on. Nevertheless, we’re pulling her out of child care with some relief soon.

    Bullying behaviour is very difficult to identify, because it’s insidious and humiliating (a bit like sexual abuse). The strategies that seem to work are twofold: one, you really involve children in creating clear expectations that bullying is not on, in whatever form, and really spell it out as to what is unacceptable (text messages, notes on the back, etc), and give other kids ways of dealing with it to support the victim. Two, you have to talk to the parents and carefully work out whether this child is playing out events in home life or if they’re just on a power trip.

    I was bullied and I was a bully. Around the time that my home life was becoming increasingly abusive, I started giving a fat girl at school a really hard time, and soon after she left the school. I still feel terribly guilty about it. A few years later another girl at school was really horrible to me a couple of years later – stickers on the back, playing tricks on me, telling me lies about friends. It took me years to get over it, which adds to my grief about the poor girl I gave a hard time to.

    At least there were no bashings involved, but the damage was done.

  10. Cherryripe,

    The psychopath I was talking about in the post above is exactly the one you are thinking of. Who knows what her problem was? Her (adoptive) parents seemed supportive and pleasant. My feeling was that it was a case of evil nature triumphing over good nurture, but who knows what happens in the secret lives of people?

    I also remember the time you fought that girl. Quite different to a fight with a boy, yes. Scratching, pinching, biting – that’s just the way girls fight, I think! We don’t have the physical strength to compete so have to use other means to unsettle our opponent.


  11. Pingback: Club Troppo » Thursday's Missing Link on Friday

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