Tackle the bullies, but also the bystanders
WE talk big about zero tolerance of bullying, so how come the perpetrators are still getting away with it?
It's important to support the victims, but not to the exclusion of tackling the tormentors, and the bystanders who enable them.
Next Friday, March 16, has been declared the National Day of Action about Bullying and Violence.
OK, so let's get on with it.
We have years of stuffing around and stuffing up to make up for.
One in four children is a victim of bullying, a figure that has remained shamefully unchanged since 2009.
Nine years ago, when the Federal Government claimed to be getting serious about bullying and commissioned the first of many studies, then Education Minister Julia Gillard said schools needed more guidance to combat bullying.
Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took the unprecedented step of writing to principals, urging them to act.
Makes you wonder what, if anything, educators have been doing?
Zero tolerance has to mean just that - no exceptions, no excuses, no acceptance of repeated bullying.
How many kids have to die, or attempt suicide like the Gympie 12-year-old who is under observation in Brisbane's Lady Cilento Hospital, before this happens?
It's not good enough for schools to act on a reported incident of bullying then consider it sorted. They must closely monitor the situation because bullying can go underground when detected, only to resurface with a vengeance when the spotlight is off.
The government's bullyingnoway.gov.au resource, part of a $1.37 million spend of taxpayer dollars, says "the primary aim of the school's response is to restore a positive learning environment for all students", but the strategies advocated are not comprehensive or far reaching enough.
Many schools are scrambling to develop student wellbeing policies, but without intentionally creating a culture that says we care about and respect each other, policies are useless.
Educators must articulate and show students exactly what a positive learning environment looks like, and what each person must do to support it, because some kids come from homes where parents have no clue.
Bystanders, too, have an important role to play.
Doing nothing when abuse occurs, watching on like it's some kind of sport or YouTube video, condones the abuse and, worse, promotes it.
Bullies prefer to torment others in front of their peers, according to GreatSchools.org, but when the "audience" expresses disapproval, bullies are more likely to stop.
When it doesn't, bullies go their hardest.
Interestingly, bystanders can also be negatively affected by bullying, with Pennsylvania State University research finding this secondary trauma can last for years, both for those who egged on the bully and the victim's friends who didn't help.
Trust is broken and relationships suffer.
Australian psychologist and bullying researcher Dr Helen McGrath says bullying demands a whole-of-community approach.
Dr McGrath, instrumental in the formation of the National Safe Schools Framework, says parents must support schools by reinforcing "pro-social" values such as kindness and respect.
A parent of a child who is bullying can say, 'we don't do that in our family', she says.
Yet how often do we see parents making excuses for appalling behaviour?
My child couldn't possibly do this. He/she is a "good kid". The school must be wrong, or picking on my child.
How about having an open mind, and taking a serious interest in your child's wellbeing and that of others?
Bullies aren't born, they're made. Typically, they develop self-esteem issues (too high or too low), lack empathy and resilience, and their desire for power and control is extreme.
Some bullying behaviour is linked to personality disorders, but most can be corrected with firm discipline and the setting and enforcing of boundaries, the type of tough love many parents avoid these days.
We've all seen what happens when bullying goes unchecked. Little thugs grow into big thugs.
They throw their weight around in boardrooms and on building sites, identifying targets to abuse and belittle for their own perverse satisfaction.
Their behaviour costs the national economy around $36 billion a year, according to the Productivity Commission, and damages the health of workers and of organisations.
They perpetrate violence in the home, often leading to the death of innocents, and they create an insidious cycle because abused children are more likely to become abusive adults.
One in four childhood thugs winds up before the courts by the age of 25.
And, according to an Australian Institute of Family Studies report, children who bully increase their risk of later depression by 30 per cent.
Bullying is not a childhood affliction that kids can be expected to outgrow.
This insidious behaviour needs to be dealt with, and the earlier the better, because, when all is said and done, the perpetrators and bystanders also deserve a decent shot at a happy life.
Imagine what zero tolerance could achieve in the prevention of crime and of mental health issues, which can render people unable to reach their potential in jobs and relationships.
Imagine how much better society would be if educators, parents and politicians truly worked together and acted on zero tolerance instead of just talking about it.
Kylie Lang is an associate editor of The Courier-Mail.