Do more students have to die before we start implementing long-term solutions to prevent bullying?
BULLYING in schools and colleges is wrong. Call it what you will, call it ragging or call it initiation: the fact remains that it is wrong, especially when children or youths wind up hurt or even killed.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because I said something very similar last August when I spoke up about this. Indeed, certain incidents last year proved that systems of protection were needed before someone was seriously injured or killed due to the acts of bullies.
In fact, I would argue that the incidents that surfaced last year clearly showed that measures were needed to ensure the safety of students, regardless of whether the bullying happened at a primary school, secondary school or outside school grounds, in Penang or at the Malaysian National Defence University.
And having said that, look where we are now. We are once again up in arms screaming for action to be taken and justice to be done as 21-year-old Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain and 18-year-old T. Nhaveen are now dead due to brutal acts described as bullying that have shocked and disgusted so many of us as the alleged details of the vile acts are splashed across the pages of our newspapers and on our screens, be it on news portals or through social media.
Yes, we are once again calling for justice to be done, this time because two lives were cut down in their prime. Yes, we are once again calling for measures and safeguards to be put in place to ensure our children, teens and youths can grow and learn in a safe environment.
However, having said that – how do we create such an environment? How do we begin the process of ensuring our outrage at the deaths of Zulfarhan and Nhaveen will bring lasting change instead of being a bright flash of outrage that will then die down until the next horrible case emerges?
If you were to ask me, I’d say that we need to begin by really recognising bullying for what it is – an act of “purposeful cruelty”, to borrow the words of Malaysian Psychological Association president Dr Goh Chee Leong.
In fact, he went on to say that a 2007-2008 Unicef study he participated in showed that the environment of an institution played a big role in instances of bullying.
“It’s usually done in a context where the environment is either actively encouraging or is complicit in the act,” said Dr Goh.
From this, we can then begin to address the root causes that motivate our youths to act in such a manner, which from my experience of being bullied in school seems to stem from fear and hatred that emerges due to a clear lack of compassion and empathy for those who are in some way different from the norm, whatever that “norm” may be.
With that in mind, how do we address this fear and hatred? At this point, I’ll put forward my suggestion that we can do this by stimulating empathy and compassion, and I feel we need to do this to help create safe, conducive spaces for learning for our children and youths.
Indeed, I believe this empathy needs to be actively cultivated from an early age, right from the first day of Year One, if not earlier.
And having said that, don’t just take my word for it. Indeed, this was the advice I got from a veteran primary school teacher on this very issue when I asked her how she addresses cases of bullying. In fact, she said the first step is to talk to the pupils to get them to see the impact of their actions.
“We normally talk to the pupils who are doing the bullying, and we get them to imagine what it is like on the receiving end.
We also try to get them to think about what benefits they would get from bullying in the long run and help them see that it isn’t beneficial for anyone or healthy in the long run,” she said.
Listening to her, I’d trust what she’s talking about. After all, she has over 30 years of experience and used to keep bullies away from me more than 20 years ago.
And as I went online to search for more possible solutions, I learned that she’s not alone in this approach, as this is the path taken by middle school teacher and erasemeanness.org founder Eric Johnson, who also applies a similar approach.
“To teach kindness, ask kids how they want to be remembered. Do you want to be remembered as a bully, as a bystander ... or as a kind and thoughtful hero? Questions like this one can make it easier for students to ‘get’ the consequences of their everyday actions.
Challenge student’s pre-existing thinking on what is a bully and what makes a hero,” he said when interviewed by Ted-Ed and on www.erasemeanness.org.
Ultimately, I’d say the time has come for us to make a decision and stop making excuses for bullying. We have to stop seeing bullying – or ragging – as a rite of passage. We have to stop using lines like “kids will be kids” and we have to let go of the perception that it’s a necessary evil as it helps children “toughen up”.
No, it is not a case of “being cruel to be kind” at all. We all have to work together to help our children, our teens and our youths see what real heroism is and live compassion-driven lives.
The time has come for us to stand together to ensure there’ll be no more deaths like Zulfarhan’s or Nhaveen’s.
Senior writer Tan Yi Liang’s In Your Face aims to prove that people have more positive power in their hands than they realise, and to challenge them. He can be reached at email@example.com.