Early in December, a video circulated of a teenage girl being bullied at the Lückhoff High School in Idas Valley, Stellenbosch. In it, a girl assaults another girl while her schoolmates watch and record the attack. This was the second video to emerge from the school in the space of a month. Each video contains a different set of girls, but incidents like these are not isolated: such videos have surfaced out of South African schools regularly. Why is bullying so prevalent in our society and how we can address it?
Bullying is unwelcome and violent behaviour that occurs between school-aged children and involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can be verbal, physical, or over social media and texting. A 2013 survey by consumer insights company Pondering Panda, showed that 57% of children feel they have been bullied. A further 71% of female and 73% of male learners said they felt threatened at school.
According to the survey, 52% of learners said they experienced bullying in the form of teasing and insults, 26% experienced physical abuse as bullying and 16% were cyberbullied via texts, email and social media.
Schools need to create safe environments for their learners
In 2015, the Department of Basic Education commissioned the National School Safety Framework, which provides guidelines on how schools should create a safe learning environment for their learners.
In it, the framework cites the “whole school approach” to school safety saying that all parties – the principal, teachers, support staff, school governing body, learners, and the community – must all participate in eradicating violence from schools.
The Framework says that the national Department of Basic Education must take responsibility for monitoring and evaluating the safety of schools while the provincial department must ensure that all schools are trained in and are implementing its guidelines.
According to the Framework, all schools must have a School Safety Committee, School Safety Policy, School Safety Plan, Emergency Plan, and a Code of Conduct to create safe environments conducive to learning.
Why is bullying so prevalent in our schools?
According to Lindiwe Dhlamini, the founder and director of Injabulo Anti-Bullying Project, “the system of education that we have is built on a white supremacist, patriarchal basis that favours the people who always fall within the margins, the people who fall within the lines.”
Basically, children who are dark-skinned, poor and queer are often targeted by bullies.
With this in mind, the project aims to do anti-bullying work “using an intersectionality lens but also decolonising the system of how kids interact with each other”. Dhlamini has devised an anti-bullying curriculum that targets high school learners which she presents in schools across the Western Cape.
“I started Injabulo Project because my nephew, who is gay, was bullied at school. When I started the project I wanted to help LGBTQI+ kids. When I got to the school I realised that the problem of bullying was much bigger than that and I had to make it a general bullying project,” said Dhlamini.
The project runs weekly themed workshops at the school, for example rape culture in relation to bullying, which deals with slut shaming and victim blaming in an anti-bullying framework. They also offer a 24/7 support network, tutoring sessions, speech and drama workshops and referral services where they work with other NGOs in the Western Cape to access resources like counselling.
— #EndBullyingInSchool (@Injabulo_IABP) November 26, 2016
In Dhlamini’s experience, bullying starts at home but can be reinforced by teachers’ attitudes and school policies.
“One of the stories from one of my kids was that they were bullied because they were fat. When the learner went to report the case to the teacher, the teacher said ‘No, you are not fat’ but then the teacher started saying, ’shut up fat one,’ and other kids would laugh and use that against the kid,” she said.
How do schools deal with bullying?
Gora Ebrahim, the principal of Auckland Park Academy of Excellence, told the Daily Vox how his school handles bullying cases.
“Every year we have one whole week dedicated to anti-bullying in which students and teachers are expected to participate,” he said.
He said the school has tried to instil a culture of reporting incidents to authorities from learners to teachers to management. The teachers have opportunities to report bullying four times a week during morning briefing sessions.
“Teachers are expected to write out a report detailing the incidents of bullying that happen in the classroom and present it to the management,” he said.
But according to most of the learners Dhlamini works with, reporting bullying to teachers does not work.
“When you report the case to the teachers say, ‘Oh no, you know how kids are, kids are mean,’ but kids are only mean because they get that meanness from home and/or from the school,” she said.
What about a child’s home circumstances?
The Daily Vox also spoke to Misha Ramjanam, deputy principal at Marlboro Gardens Secondary School, who said that violence stems from the fact that the learners are exposed to violence at home.
“You have to take into account contextual factors because when it comes to the violence, it always comes down to the fact that it often comes from home. For example, sometimes we’ll call a parent in for disciplinary procedures and witness them hitting the child right in front of our eyes,” she said.
“When parents are abusive towards that kid or the kid is witnessing the violence at home and wants to take it out on other kids at school,” Dhlamini agreed. This is why perpetrators of bullying need help too.
Focus on the bully and the bullied
Dhlamini’s anti-bullying work focuses on the perpetrators as well as the victims. “We work with the bully and the bullied,” she said.
Dhlamini said schools have the power to address bullying and they need to help bullies realise that their actions could have repercussions beyond school.
“The school must work with bullies and punish them but educate them about the damage they are doing to others. We need to reform bullies so they can help others that are going through the same thing,” said Dhlamini.
— AntiBullyingAlliance (@ABAonline) November 14, 2016
Bullies need to understand the repercussions of their actions because when they bully others, bystanders laugh, and their behaviour is validated. Dhlamini said that her project tries to find out what makes the children want to bully and give the perpetrator counselling. “You help that kid so they can help other kids,” she said.
Ramjanam told The Daily Vox that solving bullying as a society needs “buy-in from all stakeholders.” She said that learners, teachers, parents and society as a whole need to come together and commit to anti-bullying.
— Paula☮ (@T_skll) November 14, 2016
Dhlamini will be introducing her project to Lückhoff High School this week. She is hoping to run her workshops at the school next year.
The Lückhoff bullies implicated in the videos face disciplinary procedures in line with the school’s code of conduct. The case of the bully implicated in the first video went to court on 7 December and was transferred to the Child Justice Court in Stellenbosch where it will commence on 25 January 2017.
Disclaimer: The principal interviewed in this article is the author’s father.