Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Boo for bullies

It’s a relief, however small, to know that Congress was able to act on some legislative measures in recent days even as it appears to be preoccupied with impeaching the Chief Justice and other related events.

This month, the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading House Bill 5496 or the Anti-Bullying Act of 2012.  It was endorsed for the approval of the plenary by Rep. Salvador Escudero, chairman of the House committee on basic education and culture.

While the anti-bullying measure may not have the same historic, monumental significance as the events taking place at the Senate these days, it could spell the difference between normalcy and hell for young people in schools.

We have heard reports of children in other countries committing suicide because they were being bullied. Some kids get picked on because they look or talk or act different from the rest, and that they seem unable or even unwilling to defend themselves.

Even the television series Glee, which became popular two years ago, dealt with the issue of bullying in a high school where beautiful cheerleaders and athletic hunks were perceived to be the gods and goddesses on campus.  If one were gay, or extremely talented, or unnaturally studious, or simply weak, one would almost certainly be bullied.  The others will push them against lockers, throw them into the trash, or pour drinks on them.

The tragic part is that the children are led to believe that they are "bully-able", that they deserve the treatment they are getting, that they have no means to get back and thus must suffer in silence.

But that’s the US, one might say.  Children in a developing country like the Philippines have bigger problems than getting teased in school. Whoever says this is talking above his head or is in denial. 

Bullying is real. I know kids who have been bullied and I know kids who bully.  In October 2010 I wrote a column called “Child’s (power) play” and talked about a fifth grader, who somehow managed to get everybody to elect him class president, who habitually pressures the class treasurer (a girl) to give him money from the class fund -- or else he would tell the class about her crush. That’s blackmail. That’s bullying.

A grown woman, now an active NGO worker, could not forget the name of her tormentor in kindergarten. She says that at one point she wanted to stop going to school altogether – she got bad stomach pains and could not do well in her classes.

And then there is another young man, a high school sophomore, who just transferred to Manila from his mother’s province. He gets picked on because he cannot play basketball as well as the other boys can, and because he loves to sit in a corner and read books.  Sometimes he sits on the steps of the school and somebody would just hit the nape of his neck from behind. When he turns around, there is nobody there. Sometimes his things, bought with his father’s OFW earnings, disappear only to turn up in unlikely places. When he finally told his mother about what was happening, she came to the school. That sent the bullies laughing even harder – they said he could not take care of himself that Mommy has to come and fight for him.

Who wants our kids to go through these? When we talk about childhood and adolescence, we want to think about happy memories, deep and lasting friendships, unforgettable firsts.  The emotional, psychological and even physical effects (in extreme violent cases) of bullying may also be profound and enduring. It could lead to low self-esteem which could in turn lead them to make bad, self-destructive decisions. It could make them bad parents later on. It could prevent them from realizing their full potential.

The bill requires elementary and high schools to put in place anti-bullying policies. These guidelines will be disseminated in various ways – through handbooks, posters and even Web sites. School administrators must inform the division superintendents of the education department about the bullying incidents. Trainings of teachers and school officials should help build their skills and capabilities to address and prevent bullying. (It goes without saying that teachers themselves must not bully their students, even inadvertently. Some months back I wrote a column "At their expense," about a teacher who made fun of her students' grammatical mistakes on her Facebook wall.)

The bill of course does not state the obvious – that the home environment is crucial to preventing the child from being bullied or being a bully. A healthy, loving, open relationship where differences are discussed instead of swept under the rug, and manifestations of genuine empathy among parents, children and other members of the household should be in place.  After all, if the kid himself is being bullied at home, by his parents or siblings no less, what would stop him from acting out his frustrations on others? Conversely, children must assert that they must be treated a certain way. Anything less, and they must object.

The bill presumes that older individuals – those in college, as well as those who are already employed -- can take care of themselves.  They are thus not included in the bill.  This does not guarantee, though, that bullying would not happen in university or at the office.  The organizations (schools and companies/ agencies) themselves should take the initiative to establish guidelines on this as good practice, even when they are not required by law to do so.

Bullying is described as “any severe or repeated use of written, verbal, or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination of these by one or more students directed at another student that has the effect of actually causing or placing the latter in a reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or damage to the property, creating a hostile environment at school and infringing on the rights of the other students at school.” Broad enough to cover most things you can imagine?

Part of what makes bullying so difficult to track and prevent is its secret nature. Like corruption, it thrives in the dark, when no one is looking or listening, when nobody is crying foul and just takes the shabby treatment as a given. Schools have been armed by the law to take preventive action and not act only when a situation is already on hand. Let’s hope everybody steps up to prevent this insidious evil.

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