Monday, March 20, 2006

Michael Williams: Forget blame, inspire trust

To eliminate bullying from our schools, we must take a radically different approach to the traditional regime of punishment and retribution.

Schools that "come down hard" on bullying and "punish the bullies" model the sort of behaviour that they are trying to discourage. They merely encourage bullies to find other ways to oppress those students who they think have "narked".

This can mean retribution outside school and can involve a much wider circle of young people than the original offenders.

Text bullying has become a powerful tool in the hands of some students because it is immediate and offers a degree of anonymity. Banning cellphones or managing their use will have a limited effect in stopping bullying if the original intent to hurt and dominate still remains.

Punishment does not address the root causes of bullying. Unless the causes are settled once and for all, the problems that prompted the aggression will not go away.

Bullies suffer as well and the experiences of those students accused of the harassment of Alex Teka are a case in point. A 1991 study in England showed that 60 per cent of the boys identified as bullies in Grades 6-9 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24.

It is critical that once identified, the bully is reintegrated back into the school community and the shame of the bullying is somehow discharged. If this is not done, the bully invariably looks for someone to blame and that is often turned back on to the victim. Many times the bully turns the shame back on to themselves and they can begin a steady slide into self-destruction. Sometimes the blame is turned on the school and the student distances themselves from the benefits of learning.

At our school, we maintain a total commitment to a school free from any kind of violence. But having a robust school policy is only one part of the equation; what is more important is the creation of an environment of openness and trust in teachers and adults. Bullying survives in a climate of fear and intimidation. When young people feel as if the adults in their lives are their advocates, they will have no trouble asking for help.

At Edgewater College (and many other Auckland schools), we have had a phenomenal success in dealing with bullying by using an approach that resists the desire to attribute blame.

This approach involves organising a support group for the students who have been bullied, including in the group, two of the "worst" bullies. Because the bullies are not identified in the group and are positioned as being part of a support team, they invariably fall in to line with the plan of support devised by the group to help the bullied student.

In every case where this approach has been used, the bullies have changed their reputation to be accepted by the supportive members of the support team we call an "undercover" team. The team also gives those students on the team the opportunity to show leadership in helping others.

Working from a restorative perspective is never a soft option and should not be seen as a last resort when punishment has failed.

Repairing harm, taking responsibility, and the restoration of the wrongdoer to the school community after restitution should be the guiding principle in all schools.

Clear boundaries for conduct and safety must be adhered to by staff and students at all times and this, together with the recognition of the importance to address the underlying issues, will create a peaceful, happy environment where bullying is not tolerated.

Where families have failed to provide a safe place for children, schools must be a place where things are different, where young people feel safe, are listened to, and can experience the joy and confidence that comes from doing a job well.

* Michael Williams is HOD Student Support at Edgewater College

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