PETALING JAYA: Bullying in schools may be a long-standing “tradition” but it has become a prevalent issue of late, thanks to videos going viral on social media, as well as media coverage of some of the more tragic cases.
One relatively understated aspect of this is the role of teachers – the supposed guardians – in their acquiescence or complacency, or even worse, when they themselves are the bullies.
In their research paper Bullying Among Secondary School Students in Malaysia: A Case Study, Norshidah Mohamad Salleh and Khalim Zainal of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia argue that teachers need to be more sensitive to the phenomenon, while schools need to be more decisive in addressing the issue.
Also, “parents, the State Education Department and the Ministry of Education should provide support to teachers so that teachers can curb bullying more effectively,” they write.
“The school should play a more proactive role by promoting an aggressive student-specific plan.
“Comprehensive school-based programmes are the most effective way to address the problem of bullying in schools,” they added, after conducting their study of a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur.
In another study of 1,920 in-service teachers from 120 secondary schools randomly selected from six states, Lee Jun Choi, Syawal Narawi and Nik Adzrieman Abdul Rahman of Universiti Utara Malaysia questioned whether teachers in Malaysia are properly trained and equipped to handle bullying.
“Whether they like it or not, as teachers it is also part of their duties and responsible to tackle any bullying case,” they wrote in a paper Teachers’ Self-Efficacy in Dealing with Bullying Among Secondary Schools Students In Malaysia published in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Education and Social Sciences.
“One of the reasons why so many victims feel helpless … may well be the result of widespread scepticism on the part of teachers and school administrators in regard to bullying and its seriousness and their inability or unwillingness to support and protect bully victims,” they said.
“There is also tendency for teachers to underestimate bullying as a problem and to dismiss most bullying incidents as ‘trivial’ and not worth ‘making much fuss’ about,” they added.
Amanda, 34, a former student of a girls school in Perak who wanted to be known only by that name, would probably agree.
She told The Star Online that although she herself has never been bullied, she had noticed that many teachers merely watched while their students got bullied.
“I have seen it before,” she said. “There was a girl in my class – I believe she came from a very modest background – and she used to get bullied because her uniforms were old and her shoes were unpolished.
“It was cruel and once it happened in our Biology class right in front of our teacher. When my friend and I reported it to the teacher, she merely said ‘Haiyo, this is normal in school, it will stop, but I will look into it’.
“But honestly, I do not think she did because the bullying continued and that girl eventually dropped out of school,” Amanda added.
She argued that schoolteachers have to take responsibility for the welfare of their students, and referred to the recent case of T. Nhaveen, who died a few days after being assaulted on June 10 in Penang.
Four teenage suspects have been charged under Section 326 of the Penal Code for murder, and according to Nhaveen's mother, at least one of the suspects had bullied him in school.
“The bullying apparently started during his schooldays, and it was reported that it was bad,” Amanda noted.
“Why did the teachers not do anything? Do not tell me they did not know, because if that were the case, they were not doing their job,” she added.
The culpability of teachers and the school itself came into stark relief with a recent lawsuit.
In April, a 16-year-old student in Terengganu filed a RM2mil suit against nine parties, including five students, for bullying him two years ago.
The suit, filed with the student’s father Ahmad Fauzi Abdullah as the plaintiff, also named the SM Sains Sultan Mahmud (Sesma) senior assistant for student affairs, a former principal of Sesma, the director-general of the Education Ministry, and the Malaysian Government as defendants.
The plaintiff is claiming exemplary damages and aggravated damages from the defendants related to an incident of bullying on April 26, 2015, which saw the victim subject to severe injuries, shock, depression, trauma and also unable to focus on his studies, according to court papers.
Teachers as bullies
Non-action can be damaging enough. Imagine when the teacher itself is the bully.
A 26-year-old writer The Star Online spoke to, also requesting to be known only by his first name Neil, said that he is still traumatised by what his teachers did to him 18 years ago.
He said there were two teachers in particular who bullied him through the years, and the school’s discipline teacher had a “big outburst when I was in Primary Five.”
“It was raining that day and my discipline teacher, who was also my Physical Education teacher, made us stay in class.
“I still don't know why, but he suddenly asked me to stand up in the middle of the class and dig my nose.
“I was clueless and I did not understand what he was trying to say, so I asked him to clarify, and he very threateningly asked me to dig my nose, so much so I started crying and said that I did not understand why.
“He kept shouting, ‘Dig your nose now’, so I eventually did it, but as a response, he took my exercise book and threw it out unto the field and made me go get it in the rain,” he said.
Neil said that in another incident, his English teacher, a woman who had referred to him as a loser and bullied him for his “nerdy” appearance, once made him stand on the table and called him a loser for getting poor marks in a test.
He that experiences such as these, though they happened a long time ago, have left him emotionally scarred.
“To those who know me, they can see that I always have that insecurity about whether there something is wrong with me, and I try to hide it with humour.
“It feels good when people laugh, so I bury all that sadness and insecurity with jokes.
“All my jokes come from dark places, and you can’t hurt me when I have already made fun of myself, right?” he said.
A 27-year-old copywriter who wanted to be known only as Siti, said that she would never be able to forgive the teachers who bullied her and her fellow students.
“It was at a very famous girls school in Penang, and this woman who was my class teacher for three years used to physically and verbally abuse all her students.
“The first day we were learning the alphabet, she asked all of us to take turns reciting the alphabet on the blackboard.
“She verbally abused the students who could not do it and told the rest to refer to these students as ‘bodoh’ (stupid),” said Siti.
Siti said that a female teacher in another school had embarrassed her in front of the school assembly simply because she had spoken to a male teacher who had asked her why she was crying.
“I was 11 and it started at a prefect camp. The female teacher had been psychologically and verbally abusing students, and after a few bullying sessions, I sat alone, dejected.
“The male teacher came and asked me if I was okay, and I told him what had happened.
“Turns out he was her husband, and the next day she called forth the student who ‘told on her’ and threatened to punish everyone if the guilty party did not step forward, so I did.
“She told everyone that I was a person who loved to ‘express feelings to men’, and she loudly demanded that I pick a male schoolmate and ‘pour my heart out’ to him,” said Siti, who added that what followed was extremely embarrassing.
She said that it was an unspoken rule among students at the school that complaints to parents would result in horrible repercussions.
She added that most of her schoolmates had to face the situation on their own as they were too young to understand that they could get help from the outside.
What made things worse was the more than anything, she was worried that such teachers could continue with impunity as none of them were brought to task during her days at the school.