Bullying and Harrassment: Is it Funny Until Someone Gets Hurt?

by Claudio Muñoz

A child is bullied every seven minutes in the schoolyard and every 25 minutes in the classroom according to an investigation developed in 1997 for Drs. Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig. The same study revealed that 14 per cent of elementary school kids had been bullied because of their race.

We are not talking just numbers here or about someone stealing your children’s lunch. Bullying can get really nasty, it can easily go from jokes to terrorization with knives or guns. Just read the papers. "Three teenage boys face charges including assault, armed robbery and uttering death threats after two schoolmates were bullied with a switchblade at an eastern Ontario school," reported CBC news just a couple of weeks ago.

Ten years ago, bullying referred only to hitting, kicking and punching. Nowadays the definition includes a number of behaviours that were once ignored or accepted as unavoidable. Toronto District School Board publications explain that bullying "is a behavior where an individual purposefully and deliberately hurts others. This can be done through physical, verbal or social means. These acts of aggression or manipulation are repeated over time and are usually related to power and social hierarchy." (Hierarchy means your standing in the community). But to truly define bullying, it is necessarily to consider another basic factor – there must be an unequal power relationship where one person has or seems to have more power than the other.

"Bullying takes many different forms," Professor Mehrunnisa Ahmad Ali from Ryerson University explains. "It can be name-calling, exclusion, physical harassment or spreading rumors about somebody even through the internet."

How do you tell the difference between harassment and a simple joke? "Jokes are not intended to hurt people, so if the ‘victim’ laughs, it is not bullying. But if it hurts feelings, it is not a joke anymore – it’s bullying." The person being hurt is the one who defines what is bullying.

Overall, there are two types of this maltreatment. ‘Physical bullying’, that includes hitting, kicking, punching, stealing or sexual assault and ‘psychological bullying’, which is split in two groups: verbal (insults, name calling, comments about how you look or talk, threats, sexual harassment or racial related) and social (gossiping, rumours, ignoring, not including someone in group activities.)

Because ‘the future is here’, there is a new variety of bullying, cyberbullying, which is the use of electronic means to intimidate, harm, exclude or ruin a reputation. Includes email, instant messaging, text or images sent on cell phones, web pages of all kinds, chat rooms and discussion groups.

Despite what you may think, this problem is not just "a normal part of growing up." Public Safety Canada established that "bullying behavior doesn’t usually go away on its own and often gets worse with time." Indeed, it can end really badly. In 2004, Travis Sleeve committed suicide in Saskatoon after 2 ½ months of consistent harassment, which included assaults, ‘vulgar vandalism’, and students throwing rocks at him and defacing his car, according to his mother.

In November 2000, Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14 year old from British Columbia, left a suicide note saying, "If I try to get help it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls." That same year, Hamed Nastoh killed himself by jumping off the Pattullo Bridge between New Westminster and Surrey, B.C. In February 1998, Myles Neuts, just 10 year old, was found hanging from a coat hook at an elementary school in Chatham. Two older boys who later had called some friends to watch Myles strangle had put him there. He died four days later.

Newcomer children: the easiest target for bullies?

In Canada, 10 to 13 per cent of boys from grades 6 to 10 reported to have being bullied once or twice per month, or even more. The highest rate of bullying occurs in grade 10. In the case of girls, the statistics revealed that 4 to 11 per cent in grades 6 to 10 have reported being bullied once or twice per month or more, with a peak occurring in grade 8, according to Bullying and Fighting, from Wendy Craig (2004.) Public Safety Canada adds that 8 to 19 per cent of middle school and 21 percent of high school students reported being bullied because of their ethnicity.

It’s not that ‘natural born bullies’ have a radar to detect victims. For the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, victims of bullying tend to be "quiet and shy in temperament. They tend not to retaliate or make any assertive responses to the initial aggression, which is then repeated by the bully. These children typically lack friends and social support at school and they are often not confident in their physical abilities and strength."

Newcomer children can be part of this group easily. Investigators Pepler and Craig established in 1997 that they are bullied more often than first or second generation Canadians. "High school students who were not born in Canada experienced significantly more victimization related to their ethnic background than those born in Canada." In the case of elementary students, the place where you have born doesn’t make any difference for bullies.

Newcomer children begin school here feeling like outsiders. They are alone and vulnerable, so even if your child was strong and assertive when they were younger, the very fact of being new to Canada can allow them to become victims of bullying.

You may not be surprised to learn that there is bullying between first generation Canadians and new immigrants at school but it may shock you to find out that the bullies are often kids with similar ethnic roots. For Professor Ali, the main reason for this phenomenon seems to be the desire of first or second generations Canadians to distance themselves from newcomers. "They call the new guys fobs (‘fresh off the boat’) or things like that." These cases of harassment can cut deeper than attacks from strangers. "You feel, as a newcomer, that the person who has been here for a while and knows your culture, your language, would be helpful to you. And when instead of that they bully you, you feel even worse because he or she is just like you," Professor Ali explains.

As a newcomer parent you need to be aware of the problem and prepare to intervene. First, you need to know if your child is been bullied. "Every kid is different," explains Ali. "They express conflicts or concern in different ways, so the key for immigrant parents – as well as any other – is try to talk with your kid regularly and make them feel that you are on their side no matter what, because sometimes they won’t tell things that they think are going to gain disapproval or will make things more complicated."

Here are a group of good conversation starters:

  • What did you do today?
  • What was the most difficult thing that happened to you at school today?
  • Who are your friends?
  • Are other kids friendly with you?

Talk with your children like this on a regular basis, not just once in a while.

Newcomer parents often lack the confidence to talk to teachers. But even if you worry that your English is not good or if you don’t know Canadian ‘father-teacher relationship rules’, you still need to talk to teachers. "If you just go and say, ‘My child seems a little bit upset. Can you keep an eye on him?’ the teacher will respond. They will try to watch out and see what’s happening," explains Ali.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recommends asking the children directly if they think they have been bullied. Give them the option to talk about it or not and, if the kid wants to, help him in being specific about the details. Listen carefully – without judging or blaming – and believe and validate his feelings.

Congratulate your child for reporting the incident and keep the communications channels with him open. Do not advise your child to fight back and do not confront the bully or his/her family. Again, go to the school and establish a plan with them to deal with this problem. "It’s up to the newcomer to communicate with the person who bullied and tell him, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not a joke.’ He doesn’t have to attack back or report it to somebody, he can just say directly, ‘I don’t like this.’ If the attacker doesn’t respond to that, then the affected should take other actions," explains Professor Ali.

"If bullying happens outside school you have to discover what is it that led to that bullying," the professor says. "If there’s a particular area in which the kid is hanging out and the other kids are maltreating him there, then the child should avoid the area.

"If the bullying is really bad – if somebody is harassing you, throwing stones at your house or things like that, call the police. Even if they can’t do anything to help you, the fact that you called them shows your child how serious you are about helping them and also shows the attacker that you’re not just going to take it. There are also community leaders who can help you. Some Community Centres have advocates who can intervene on your behalf. Here, in Canada we have really good laws for child and family protection."

In the case of cyberbullying, the TDSB recommends you "Save any harassing message or photos so they can be forwarded to police and your internet service provider. Contact the school if the cyberbullying is occurring with another student or through a school." Anyway, the best solution is prevention. Keep the home computer in an easily viewable place so you can check what your children are doing on-line and encourage your kids to tell you if they feel uncomfortable when using the computer. Teach them responsible internet use (they should never give personal information such as phone numbers or email address) and learn ‘chat language’ so you can understand what your children are talking about.

Overall, pay attention to bullying or any kind of harassment and act as a responsible adult. Bullying is not an isolated problem. For professors Pepler and Craig, bullying "underlies many problems related to interpersonal violence in Canada […] Children who bully are at increased risk for engaging in such illegal activities as delinquency and substance abuse. These children are also at risk for diversifying their use of power and aggression from bullying on the playground to sexual harassment and dating aggression. We are also concerned that bullying may lay the foundation for adult relationship problems such us workplace harassment, marital aggression, child abuse and elder abuse."

CNM