"I Am Not Scared" Project
Group bullying at a secondary school in Sofia
The event started in the winter of 2009, this particular case took place during and after the big recess.
The main actors involved are 3 boys – А, B and C – from one class in an elite high school in Sofia.
The bullying actions carried out are described below:
During the big recess almost all students were outside, having fun in the fresh fluffy snow. Snowballs are flowing in all directions. At a certain moment, following a fierce snowball fight between two boys – A and B – one of the balls breaks the window of the headmaster’s office. Trying to hide themselves A and B mingle with the crowd and head directly towards their class-room. Boy C is sitting there – he is a depressed and introverted boy form the same class, who is the usual target of insults. Shortly after the return of all the students and the beginning of the period, the school guard enters the room and states that he knows that someone from this particular class has broken the window and that the headmaster, who was not in the school at the time of the event, is returning and is about to investigate and punish the perpetrators. The English language teacher who is currently having a period with the group leaves the room in indignation. A and B come up with the idea that they can blame the broken window on C. They start persuading the remaining children from the class to say to the headmaster that C has broken the window. All students collectively decide to blame the responsibility on C. They even take out a mobile phone with a camera and make a short video how they have surrounded C and the one shooting the video asks the question “This is C, the person who broke the window, right?” – and everybody else is shouting “Yessss” in response and pointing their fingers towards C. At that particular moment C’s patience disappears. Without saying a word he stands up and pulls a small knife out of his pocket. Immediately a few of his school-mates charge towards him and beat him up with punches and kicks. The fight is broken up pretty quickly and no one is seriously hurt. The headmaster does not appear and there is actually no punishment.
This particular event takes place within 2 hours during the first half of the school year. The behavior towards C however is a long term trend.
The response undertaken by the teachers was none whatsoever and the situation was allowed to escalate. The reaction of the English language teacher was absolutely inadequate in the first place. The fact that the entire class turned into one massive bully towards C actually leaves no passive witnesses – everybody participated in the defamation and blaming of C.
The parents of the victimized boy – C – contacted the school headmaster on the basis of the complaint, which they finally received from their son. After this the headmaster consulted with the teachers and the form tutor of this class as well as with the school counselor. The council has requested punishing of both the students and the staff members who broke the rules of work and conduct at school.
The headmaster responded with the following:
- undertook meetings and discussions with all participants in the conflict and requested written explanations from the guard why he entered the school-room during period and from the teacher, why she left the room without having good reasons for that;
- supported the proposal of the school council for punishing the students;
- request disciplinary punishment of the staff members who violated the internal regulations;
- proposed to the pedagogic advisor to develop a plan for work with this particular class and for undertaking measures for profiling all students, who have proven themselves prone to violence, as well as those who could become potential victims.
This bullying action had a substantial and long term impact on the school environment and on its members in a variety of ways.
First of all the teaching process in this particular class has been at least temporarily obstructed. The students failed to take their English language period and instead of focusing on their school subjects they also had to divert much of their attention and time to the discussions, lectures and trainings, which were about to follow with their form tutor, the school psychologist, external expert psychologists and other specialists. The teachers also inevitably suffered from this turn of event, because it had to change their teaching program – both time-wise and topic-wise.
As far as students’ motivation is concerned this event mainly had an effect on C’s motivation. Considering the fact that he considers himself misunderstood, distant, unwanted and picked upon by all his classmates, goes unnoticed by the teachers and obviously his parents, he fails to see why he should perform well or try to please anyone with good results. His low self-esteem makes it hard for him to compete and to strive for self-improvement. What he sees is the immediate need for protection and self-defense. The constant bullying has caused his grades to be lower than his potential. The focus of his attention is not how to achieve more, but how to be left alone and how to make the others stop bullying him.
The results of the other students remain relatively unaffected. The results of the two leading bullies are lower than the average for the class because they do spend a lot of time and energy on unproductive activities such as figuring out how to torment others, how to make fun of them and how to manipulate as many of their fellow students as possible, because this makes them feel special. The majority of the other students are not affected as far as their results and achievements at school are concerned.
School integration issues are also affected by this case of violence. First of all there is a new or newly intensified feeling of inability to cope with the children (strongly demonstrated by the English language teacher who left the class-room the minute she heard the news from the guard), inability to function successfully in collaboration between colleagues and school administration. The victim most definitely feels rejected by both his class-mates and the school staff members, who have failed to pay attention to his situation until he brought out the knife. There is no sense of integration within the school for him. The apprehension and fear of violence from other peers will affect him also in the new establishment which he is probably going to move to. The delayed reaction on behalf of his parents surely brought the feeling of disintegration also at family level. Many bullied children express the emotion of feeling unprotected by their parents and consider their parents unable to stand up for them.
The bullies will also suffer disintegration from the school from now on, because they have distinctly been pointed out as not trust-worthy, as children who should not be followed as role models by the other students and whose influence is obviously bad for the class and the larger school community. Their future is probably also in moving to another establishment, better not together, because there they may try to duplicate their joint model of behavior. If they are separated they would have some “off-bullying” time to reconsider their behavior and probably discover other interests and more productive pastime activities.
The other students, who can easily be described both as bystanders/witnesses and as co-bullies will undergo a process of self-awareness and will need to reestablish themselves as good members of the school and the society in general. Being “together in this” they might actually form a better class-bondage and achieve improvement both as a group and as individuals.
The active citizenship philosophy advocates that members of nation-states have certain roles and responsibilities to society and the environment even if those members have no specific governing roles. Within the school universe active citizenship can be seen as an articulation of the debate over student/staff rights versus responsibilities. School gives knowledge, future and certain rights to minors. It also creates employment and opens a field for self-achievement and expression to a group of one of the most valuable and cherished professions – the one of the teacher. Therefore these groups that we mentioned have certain responsibilities to uphold. In a bullying case such as this, one active citizenship is disrupted at all levels and in all directions. The victim considers that his/her rights are unprotected and unsecured and he/she therefore is not fully responsible to the institution which should have protected them. The bullies on the other hand have believed that they have more rights than the others, which again misbalances the situation.
In bullying situations it is crucial that the return to balance of rights and responsibilities is as quick as possible, because the negative effects of violence on the one hand and the feeling of hurting, misunderstanding, lack of love and appreciation can lead to grave effects especially when we consider the fact that we are speaking of young and very impressionable (therefore vulnerable) minds.
In this particular case the attempt of the return to balance came quite late and with unsatisfactory results.
The school atmosphere has been polluted by improper behavior of both students and a teacher, lack of trust among staff members, an understanding of the inappropriateness of the accepted non-formal leaders and the effects, which “we were just playing and fooling around”, can cause to those in target.
Because of the constant bullying from my school-mates and their constant insults I was misunderstood and put in isolation. I closed myself. I distanced myself from everybody else. I communicated with nobody and expressed no objections. I guess I wanted to remain unseen. Nobody knew how I felt and how tortured, afflicted and at the same time insulted and angry I was, due to the fact that I was not understood. Even my parents did not feel and understand my behavior. They weren’t even trying. May be this is why they picked me for a victim – I was perfect. Always insulted and never searching for a way to protect myself.
At that particular moment however my anger took over. I decided that this should end, that I have had enough. With my actions I wanted to show them that I don’t want to be the weakest among them anymore and tat I can protect myself. My aim was to just to scare them off and to make them “respect” me in the same way that they were doing it – with fear and violence. It was a mistake of course. I was misunderstood again and they charged towards me.
This event makes me think. I understood that my silence is not helping me. I should have shared with someone. I should have trusted and opened myself up. I did not want to be an outsider anymore. I needed help and I should have searched for it. I needed a friend, someone who should be with me in good or bad, to help me and understand me. I needed the parent to guide and support me and even to point out my mistakes. Probably the way to achieve this was just to ask for it, to create and strengthen the relationship parent-child and counselor as an intermediary between us.
I understood that I have to “stretch my hand”, to seek help by sharing my concerns. To believe in myself and the people around me.
When the snowball fight got the better of the two of us and we actually managed to break the headmaster’s window, we got really scared about the consequences. Thanks to the turmoil that followed and the fact that we panicked, we decided that there is a chance that we can be unpunished. In our attempt not to bear the responsibility for our actions we decided to blame the guilt to the third boy, which was anyway not a favorite one of anybody else and to whom everybody is being unkind. Using the status of our class-mate we decided that he is the perfect victim and that it would be really easy to convince the class in this and to blame him for the broken window. This would have been the perfect way to be out of any suspicions. We thought he would not receive help from the headmaster or the head-teacher of our class, because even if he tried to defend himself, his voice would have been too weak and lonely … not for the first time as well.
This psychical pressure, which was not a single case either, cause him to take out the knife and cased the beating that followed. This beating aggravated further the situation we were already in.
After this event we were quite perplexed. On the one hand we felt remorse because of our vicious and egoistic activities towards our class-mate, but on the one hand we were forced to chose – him or us. If we did not blame the fault over to him we would have been mocked, ashamed and punished. This of course does not justify our activities.
The situation, in which we found ourselves unknowingly, was full of emotions. The experienced fun from the snowball game turned into the reason for a window breaking and not just some window, but the headmaster’s window. We were all over agitated and were not thinking clearly about what was taking place around us. This is why we succumbed to the manipulation and unanimously agreed with the two unofficial leaders in the class, who most probably were the true window-breakers, and we attacked the boy they pointed towards.
The guilty boys simply wanted to cover their deed and used us for the purpose. This was not right, but we allowed it ourselves. May be they were afraid of a follow up punishment or were thinking that they could do anything and get away with it. Probably their parents at home are also guilty and have failed to teach them how to tell right from wrong, how to be honest and disciplined and respectful. The teachers and the pedagogic advisor are just as guilty as them, because they failed to sense the tension that has built up in the class or did not pay the necessary attention to it.
If the English language teacher had tried to find out what actually happened instead of leaving the room, if the guilty boys had simply admitted to the deed the situation would have evolved like this. A and B would have simply paid for the broken window and endure the punishment from the headmaster.
Under the influence of constant stress, insults and fear the boy we accused reacted in a way, which was not expected by anyone. He had to protect himself, or may be he just wanted to scare us off and to show us that he is not weak anymore and can protect himself. This was another cry for help from his behalf, but we misunderstood him again. This was not the way. He should have protected himself with words, to seek help from the head teacher, from the pedagogic advisor, the headmaster and most importantly from his parents. But he has always been unseen by us, misunderstood, the boy to be insulted and mocked and probably this is why he thought he would not be heard unless he acted in a more drastic way. Seeing his reaction we got scared and in our fear that he might injure somebody some of the boys in the class charged towards him and gave him a beating.
Regardless of this we acted hastily, rudely and unconsciously towards the problem. The guilty boys, because they tried to protect themselves in a very undignified and unacceptable way and we, because we unknowingly helped them to achieve their aim. If we had searched for help at the mere beginning of the problem things would not have evolved the way that they did. We are all aware that we are guilty and responsible for what happened.
In the depicted situation, the teachers from the Secondary school “Hristo Smirnenski” consider that the following should be / have been undertaken:
1. Regardless of the type of period, during which the event is taking place, the teacher should in no case and under no circumstances leave the class. One option is to pacify the students and continue with the teaching and leave the problem to the class head-teacher. The other option is to undertake actions for clarifying the situation by informing the pedagogic advisor and the school headmaster.
2. Immediate clarification of the situation should follow. The students should be questioned in order for the truth to be found. It is important to stress on the understanding of the danger from the actions of the two boys, who play the role of formal and informal leaders in the class and manipulate all other students, who either in the attempt to please them or because they afraid from getting into the position of boy C, are ready to do a grave injustice. Thus they also turn into bullies. The systematic bullying of the boy C makes him a victim, which in response to the violence prepares for self-defense. C challenges the school regulations, which forbid bringing of dangerous objects to school. This reaction is caused by the irresponsible behavior from teachers, advisor and headmaster towards him. They are all guilty for the situation that has arisen.
3. What follows is psychological and advisory work with the entire class, separately with the two boys (bullies and отделно с двете момчета (насилници и манипулатори), with the victimized boy. The reasons for the behavioral deviations of the students are sought. Some of them need to overcome their aggression and to understand that they cannot humiliate the weaker students, and the other boy to overcome its fear and to become brave and self-confident.
4. The next step is a discussion with the parents, who are the leading authorities in the formation of the boys’ characters. They should be encouraged to participate adequately in the solving of the problem and not engrave it even further.
5. Then should come the report from the head teacher for imposing a punishment for:
- The two organizers and initiators of the problematic situation - „Transferring to a different school by the end of the school year”.
- The class – „Participating in activities in favor of the school during their period-free time”.
- The boy with the knife – a reprimand for bringing dangerous objects to school.
6. The pedagogic council implements the punishments.
7. The headmaster and the school psychologist must speak with the head teacher and the other teachers who go to this class. This is done for the purpose of finding the reasons for which the teachers failed to notice the unacceptable behavior of the leaders or refused to speak up about it. May be this was because the two bullies have some strong protection at school, which guarantees their impunity.
8. Disciplinary punishment should be imposed on the teacher, who left the period. Such behavior on behalf of a teacher is unacceptable.
The depicted situation is a typical example, showing the results from a missing coordination of the educational activities at school. Violence can take many different forms. In this case, if C had not taken out his knife, may be the violence towards him and/or other students would have continued unnoticed by the members of the school – students and staff. Bringing out the knife opened everybody’s eyes for the violence problem. Violence, in its various forms, has always followed the educational work at school and it is our task as teachers to notice it and prevent it, before someone pulls a knife on another participant in a bullying situation.
In this particular case I would undertake meetings and discussions with all participants in the conflict. I would request written explanations from the guard why he entered the school-room during period and from the teacher, why she left the room without having good reasons for that.
I would support the proposal of the school council for punishing the students. I would request disciplinary punishment of the staff members who violated the internal regulations.
I would propose to the pedagogic advisor to develop a plan for work with this particular class and for undertaking measures for profiling all students, who have proven themselves prone to violence, as well as those who could become potential victims.
During the last years there is a persistent tendency for increasing aggressive and pro-bully behavior of the children. We the parents are those who need to teach our children which is good and which is bad. It is unacceptable to justify ourselves with the fact that we have a busy life-style. This way we lose the child-parent connection. The children sense this and skillfully take advantage of it. Each of us has faced similar problems as a parent.
We are those who have to teach the children to respect the institutions as a whole and the school, the teachers and their class-mates in particular. If the children are not taught this at home, they will not apply it at school either. We must not teach our children that the only response to a blow is another blow, or that in order to make it in life we must dominate everybody else. Or that we are allowed to do everything and are not responsible for our actions. If the child hears at home that it is allowed to do everything, it will believe that no one has the right to correct or punish him.
A great role is played also by the parent-teacher connection. In case of an aggressive behavior signal the parent is the one who should take immediate action, but not with punishment and a beating, which will eventually increase the aggressiveness of the child, but with friendly conversations and life-examples, which help draw certain morals. If the parent fails to pay attention to what is happening, he immediately dooms his child to turn into one of the two oppositions – a victim or a bully.
During the two astronomical hours during which this particular case takes place, a lack of interest is demonstrated both on behalf of the teachers, the headmaster or even the pedagogic advisor. We have serious doubts that the guard told some of the parents or other teachers. What is even more interesting are the grounds on which the English language teacher left the class. We, the parents, are outraged from her unreasoned departure, we are disappointed by this irresponsible behavior. May be if she had spoken to the class and researched the case, she could have prevented the bad consequences.
When such cases occur, we wonder if we can be at peace while our children are at school. Where is the responsibility of the members of this institution?
A typical example for conformist thinking on the part of the entire class – in harmony with the order imposed in the class by the non-formal leaders – A and B. Non-formal leaders exist in each class and these children are those who impose the unwritten rules in the class. Whether these rules are “good” or “bad” depends on a number of factors. This is why each class has a specific “atmosphere”. The pedagogic advisor is the person who, together with the head teacher and the parents, should not allow such intense “pollution” of the atmosphere at class, as in the case with this class.
The lack of any justice measure on behalf of the entire class unlocks the self-protective reaction of C.
Finding the truth is not a tough task in this case.
If I was aware about the case, I would conduct a discussion with the class and include role plays. I would definitely have private conversations with A, B and C and work with them individually. I would schedule a meeting with their parents, as well as participation in a parents’ meeting for analyzing the problem together with the parents.
For the purpose of improving the communication in the class it is most necessary that a survey is carried out among the students and on the basis of the results of this survey I would define and propose certain measures. There are very good practices for team building and shifting priority focuses. The behavior of the non-formal leaders can also be corrected.
In this situation, the person who took a decision for action was the school headmaster. On the one hand his actions are correct – all interested parties have been questioned, penalties have been appointed for the school staff members who acted inadequately. On the other hand, the headmaster takes a decision for expelling both the victim and the bullies, registering and punishing the entire class, which is a very severe measure, which could not lead to a long term positive effects on the children, but could actually further complicate their lives and hence their future behavior. The most correct decision could incorporate leaving all involved children in the class and work at all levels. This way the school management would demonstrate readiness for undertaking responsibility for the overall problem management and not just transfer it and potentially complicate it further, due to generating additional hatred within the bullies because of the punishment.
In connection with future prevention of similar cases it is necessary not only to work more intensely with the parents of the children, but also not to allow bringing in of any kind of weapon at school (knives or something else). Also, if it is necessary, a specific order for this school could be issued for forbiddance of entering classes with mobile phones, which themselves can be used as “weapons” leading to hard psychological traumas for many students.
Probably the quick-pace life-style and the excessive workload of the parents is a reason for them to communicate less and less with their children. Returning from work they are too tired and nervous and are unable to pay enough attention to their children, to listen to them and to teach them how to tell right from wrong. They think that it is enough to provide for them, to give them what the others have and even more. For them it is important to be above all, regardless of how they achieve this – “the end justifies the means”. They are unable to understand that the quick rate at which everything is evolving around us complicates the life of the children to a great extent. Too few are the parents who provide their children with enough attention and try to teach them, which are the moral values and to show them the mistakes they make and how to bear responsibility for this. They simply transfer this responsibility to the educational system. “That is what the teachers are paid for. I just have to secure normal living conditions. The rest is your responsibility” they think. But the educational system also has gaps. The students are given too many rights, which strengthen their sense of impunity. The teacher has just the right to show what is right, to guide the student, but nothing more and if no help is comes from the parents, all his efforts are useless.
The unpleasant situation, in which everybody falls, makes them think about the reasons behind it.
1. The boy who is a victim understands his need of help and his inability to cope on his own.
2. Those responsible for the bad event reconsider their actions and the consequences from their actions, and to a certain extent understand what they have actually done.
3. After the initial exaltation, the other students, who are witnesses of the event, understand their weakness and inability to oppose the non-formal leaders in the class and the traumas they have caused to their class-mate.
4. All teachers without exception judge the reaction of their colleague – the English language teacher – and believe she should be punished. Her decision to leave the class-room worsens the situation. Her colleagues consider that a proper investigation of what happened as well as timely assistance to the participants would prevent the unpleasant situation. The teachers support the opinion that the entire class should be punished (victim, bullies and witnesses) and there should be meetings with the psychologist so that they can reconsider their behavior. They need help and support from the parents and strengthen their connection with them.
5. The headmaster supports the pedagogic council and their request of overall investigation of the case, punishing the students and imposing disciplinary responsibility to the staff members who violated school labor regulations. For the purpose of preventing other similar cases, the headmaster assigns to the psychologist the task to elaborate a work plan for this class as well as a list of measures for profiling all the students who are prone to become bullies or victims.
6. The parents are probably reconsidering their views regarding the upbringing of their children and the need to spend more time with them.
The pedagogic advisor sees the necessity to build a psychological profile of the class through conducting a survey and undertaking role plays, in order to achieve team building of the class and shifting the priority center by implementing good practices. For this purpose he needs the support of the parents.
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