BULLYING, NO WAY: OUR STORY
Today marks the 9th National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence, and the 2nd anniversary of one of the worst days of our lives. The day our then 12 year old arrived home, fresh from a ‘bullying, no way’ session at school, to tell us he had taped the then 16 year olds, who had been bullying him on the bus for more than 2 years.
Before the tape, we were unaware of the extent of the bullying. We heard twenty minutes filled with the most horrific language, threats of obscene physical violence and the suggestion of sexual violence. That tape, and the months that followed, broke us into a million little pieces. Our boy endured taunting, he was prevented from going to the school’s only toilet block, he was spat at and ostracised. Boys his own age were threatened not to be his friend. The school sent him for counselling that he didn’t ask for nor want. He was so fragile, yet so brave. I cried a river and Jason didn’t sleep.
The good news is that, two years later, we are all well on the road to recovery. Forever changed, but healed nonetheless. We are by no means experts, but we are survivors and, for what it’s worth, we have some thoughts to share that may (or may not) help others. They’re in no particular order beyond how they spilled out of my mind and heart.
1. In hindsight, there were flags that I missed that indicated our boy was having a terrible time. Every now and then he would say, almost off-handedly, “Those boys on the bus are still being mean to me”. I’d say, “Oh, just move away” or “If you ignore them, bullies will stop” or “Think about what you’re doing that annoys them and stop it”. I’m so ashamed of myself. I’ve kicked myself endlessly for not listening more, not asking more questions and not taking the time to truly understand.
2. Don’t be afraid to proactively seek out your school’s bullying policy. Our school didn’t have one. Instead, they had a brief statement in the student diary, asserting that all students have the right to feel safe at school and during travel to and from school. There were no definitions, no indications of a step-wise process. They assured us it didn’t matter because “a piece of paper couldn’t fix things”. Clarify with the school their approach to bullying outside the school gate or online. They have obligations in those spaces as well. Whilst a policy is only a starting point, and it doesn’t guarantee a sophisticated culture, it can guide a process so that, during the storm, you are at least navigating somewhere.
3. Beyond a policy, communication with the school is critical. At one point, our school told us the older boys would be suspended. On that basis, our boy was back on the bus the next day but, unexpectedly, so were the bullies. The school explained there was an “unfortunate breakdown in communication”. No one had told us of the change of plan. On the bus that afternoon, our boy was threatened with having his head pounded into the concrete and assured the school would not protect him. As a member of a school community, you deserve a clear policy and sensitive, timely and skilful communication.
4. Keep contemporaneous notes. It’s an emotionally exhausting time and you may want to keep track of what has happened and what has been agreed.
5. If the bullies’ actions venture into criminal behaviour, report them to the police. You can continue to talk to the school during the police investigation and the school shouldn’t take exception with you doing this. Our school offered to sit with our son during his interview with child protection officers. We refused, believing that we were his best advocates and that he would be better able to speak freely without the administration sitting in.
6. Be reasonable, try to partner with the school and ask for feedback about your child, but don’t venture too far into victim blaming. We always sought to understand what our child was doing to start/maintain the bullying, but there’s a limit to how long that is helpful. Educators who are under-skilled will see this as an opportunity to offer solutions that require the victim to change their behaviour or seek counselling. This, as a single solution, is unsophisticated and unacceptable.
7. If there is a power differential, such as a marked age difference, between the bully and your child, hold the school to a higher standard, because it puts your child at greater risk of harm.
8. If the bullying seems to suggest a cultural problem (e.g., older kids bullying younger ones, bystanders looking on but not intervening) it might be helpful to request that the school board is made aware of the matter. In our case, the school principal refused this but, if permitted, it could be assistive for the board to consider any social structures that contribute to preventing or halting bullying (e.g., a vertical house system) and how the whole school community can be up-skilled to be more confident and effective in acting to stop bullying.
9. We were lucky enough to be able to call on experts in child behaviour, including bullying. They explained that bullying is more likely in ‘unstructured’ contexts, outside of adult supervision, and in cultures where the messages suggest it is tolerated and minimised. When our boy started at the school, we spent time practising catching the bus. Our fears were around him getting lost or 'stranger danger'. In fact, the danger was closer to home in the form of older boys from the same school. We didn’t anticipate that and hence spent no time talking about it in ways that might have helped when it cropped up, or at least would have opened the door for our (normally open) child to talk with us.
10. Be wary about approaching the other child’s parents. I knew the other boys’ parents from high school days, and so made a friendly approach to acknowledge (more gently than I felt inside) the conflict between our kids. I invited them (and their boys) to a BBQ at our home. I was hopeful that, together, we could help them to move forward. I got a mouthful of expletives and a steadfast “our boys are sixteen, they’re men, they don’t need your bullshit”. Instead, we then only communicated via the school and the police. It’s not how I would have responded, had the boot been on the other foot. The point is, you may be able to resolve things collaboratively, but emotions run very raw around these issues and things might escalate. If you do decide to make an approach, plan for how you will deescalate things. Avoid trying to talk about it when you’re most vulnerable or most angry.
11. If the school administration is ill equipped to assist you, seek a couple of empathic and skilled educators in the school, who can shield your child and help them to re-connect. We will forever be grateful to the couple of teachers who understood the issues and who provided much needed, practical scaffolding for our boy. Together we made a five point plan that included basic steps, including a code word he could use if he needed help, a new ‘videography club’ to help re-build his network etc.
12. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t detail the serious toll the relentless bullying and disorganised response from the school’s administration took on our boy, but suffice to say the impact was significant. If therapeutic counselling is something your child is open to, I’d suggest engaging a professional outside of the school system. If your young person is reluctant, you might attend so that you can vent your frustration and consider how best to support them. I resigned from my job and, whilst that might not be a practical or desirable option for every family, it was helpful for us.
13. Understand that bullying impacts the whole family, including siblings who have no direct involvement. The distress, frustration and heartbreak we all felt were indescribable. There’s no easy answer, but seek the support you need and work hard to maintain optimism for you and all your children. It’s important they know that it won’t be like this forever. We found solace in exercise and in helping others.
14. Keep talking to each other. I found it very difficult to contain my sadness and, at times, that was unhelpful, as our boy tried to protect me from the ongoing, despicable behaviours that just did not stop. Despite this, once we heard the tape and understood what was happening, we kept talking and talking and talking. We took breaks when it was overwhelming, and tried to have normal days with normal fun, but we kept coming back together to talk. Ultimately this helped us navigate a way forward and deepened our bond.
15. The bullying started for our boy when, at age 10, he stuck up for another young boy, whom the older boys were targeting on the bus. No one ever congratulated him and, in that worst year, our son asked me if I regretted him speaking out. I didn’t because it’s who we are, but I wished so hard that I could fix things. We now talk in more detail with our children about what stepping up for others might look like, and how they might simultaneously try to protect themselves. There’s no ready answer, but we at least consider it together.
16. Choose your counsel wisely. Avoid those who seek your ‘story’, simply so they can share the salacious details at the next Mum’s catch up at the local coffee shop. This can reach back to your child and inflict additional harm when they least need it.
17. Delay, or carefully monitor, social media if you can. Our boy was 10 when the bullying commenced and 12 when he made the tape on the bus. The acts of bullying were all IRL. He wasn’t using social media, and we delayed his usage, so that we didn’t provide the bullies increased access to him.
18. You might think about changing schools. It’s a big decision, particularly if your child has a solid friendship group. For us, the choice became clear when our boy said, “I just can’t recover at this school”. We moved to a state high school and, whilst we were worried that the bullying might somehow follow him, it hasn’t. The culture is completely different. He’s happy, he has a diverse group of great mates and he’s insightful enough to say that, whilst he wouldn’t wish his experience on anyone, it brought him to where, and who, he is today.
19. Months down the track, in one of the darkest moments of that year, it finally struck me that I COULD actually feel more devastated. If the two young men I heard on that tape, spewing such hateful filth and threatening a young boy, were mine, I’m not sure how I might have recovered. I continue to draw comfort from that.
20. Finally, let us be the light at the end of your tunnel, holding hope for your family when you simply can’t. In the 18 months since leaving that environment, our boy has blossomed. His physical growth feels, to me, like a reflection of his inner world. When he left he was tiny, still wearing size 6 or 8 shorts at age 12, and markedly smaller than his peers. In the year that followed, he grew about 40cm. But, of course, it’s his inner wellbeing that is most important. Where he was withdrawn and serious and heavy, he’s now light and funny and free. It’s the sweetest joy we’ve ever known.
15 March 2019
- At the time, the depths of hell.
- True story
- Almost a true story
- Fictional, inspired by a true story
- Completely fictional