Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nowhere Left To Turn

By Jennifer O'Connell

The facts, by now, hardly bear repeating. On a desolate January day in the Massachusetts town of South Hadley, a girl called Phoebe Prince - young, beautiful, Irish, full of life and promise - closed the door of her rented family home behind her, and shut the world out for good.

A can of Red Bull flung from a passing car and an empty stairwell on a January afternoon amounted to the last chapter in the horror story that had recently become her life.

It will be of no solace to her family or her friends, but Phoebe’s death has thrown light onto places where we didn’t really want to look, casting a beam into the darkest corners of our children’s lives. Because what was most extraordinary about the circumstances surrounding her death was how shockingly ordinary it all was.

Thousands of children in this country endure a similar hell at the hands of other children every day. School for many involves a daily assault on their right to pursue their education in peace, their morale, their self esteem and, sometimes, even their bodies.

How do they survive - if indeed they do survive? And if they keep going to emerge, exhausted and blinking, into the bright sunshine of freedom and adulthood, what scars do they bear? The answer is that we don’t really know.

Several studies have identified the short term effects of bullying - summed up by Murray Smith, of the Anti-Bullying Centre At Trinity College Dublin, as ‘‘increased stress; reduced ability to concentrate; anxiety about going to school or an unwillingness to go to school; deteriorating school work; lack of appetite; comfort eating; loss of self-esteem; alcohol, drug or substance abuse; depression; problems with sleeping; panic attacks; and physical symptoms’’.

However, the long-term effects are unknown; secrets cut into the souls of the survivors, like compass marks gouged onto a wooden desk.

Name-calling, isolation, loneliness, fear and even physical aggression are so much a part of school life for some children that they are practically part of the syllabus. This has always been the case, and for at least 23 per cent of children, it continues to be the case.

Guidelines issued by the Department of Education state that all Irish schools must set down the rules and expectations regarding bullying as part of a written code of behaviour.

In practise, this translates into more effective action in some schools than in others.

‘‘Some Irish schools are good at dealing with bullying and some aren’t - unfortunately, we still get stories about schools which are incompetent in their approach to dealing with it," says Smith.

‘‘Schools should have an anti-bullying policy in place; they should respond properly to complaints, investigate them fully and discipline people involved properly. And that means up to and including expulsion if necessary."

Fear of litigation by the parents of those accused of bullying means some schools are not as gung-ho in dealing with bullies as they might once have been, Smith admits.

‘‘There is often a reluctance to expel, because schools don’t want the hassle or they’re afraid they might get sued. I would say to those schools: do you want to be sued for the right reasons, or the wrong reasons? Do you want to be sued because you expelled a bully, or because you failed in your obligations to protect a child in your care?" he says.

The statistics suggest that our schools are still failing far too many children. A nationwide study of bullying carried out by researchers at Trinity College Dublin revealed that 31 per cent of primary students and 16 per cent of secondary students had been bullied at some point. In a population of 870,000 school-going children, that means almost one in four is at risk.

Caroline’s daughter, Orna*, is one of those children. She is in second year at a high-performing public girls’ school in Dublin.

Orna has suffered such severe bullying at the hands of a teacher and some of her classmates in recent months that she is now refusing to go back to school. ‘‘She has asthma and missed a lot of school this year because she was ill," Caroline says.

‘‘When she went back, she didn’t have some of the materials she needed for one subject. The teacher pulled her up in front of the class and said: ‘I don’t want flakes like you in my class - and you can tell that to your mother."‘

After several similar incidents, Caroline requested a meeting with the deputy principal to address the situation. ‘‘The deputy head accused me of psychoanalysing things too much. They spoke down tome, they dismissed everything I said, and kept repeating that the teacher was wonderful and was only concerned about my daughter."

The situation reached crisis point when Orna was assaulted by a group of girls in her class on the way home from school recently.

‘‘They pulled her by the hair and ripped a bracelet from her wrist. I went back into the school about that, and they responded by sitting both girls down separately and then together, and asking them what they had learned from the situation. The bully said, ‘I learned not to walk home with Orna’. And that was it - they were treated as though they were both equally complicit, and sent on their way."

Through illness and because of the bullying, Orna has missed more than 21 days, and will not now go back. ‘‘The education welfare officer is insisting I send her back to school. In theory, they could prosecute me. But I can’t get her in anywhere else, and she is too afraid to go back. The last time I forced her to go in, she was assaulted. I don’t know what to do - at this rate, I may have to educate her at home," says Caroline.

Orna’s case is far from untypical. The symptoms she is experiencing - fear, depression, loneliness, isolation and an escalation of her asthma - are well-documented in cases of bullying. But it’s the long-term effects that we don’t know about.

Anne Frey, psychotherapist at the Anti Bullying Centre, counsels a number of adults who are still dealing with the aftereffects of having been bullied at school.

‘‘Being targeted like that has such a debilitating effect on one’s psychopathology, especially self-esteem and self-confidence, that the long-term effects can be catastrophic," she says.

‘‘Often, people who were bullied as children grow up to be bullied by colleagues or peers, because they easily slide back into victim mode - simply because it’s so familiar.

Socially, they struggle, too, because they’re afraid to expose themselves and make themselves vulnerable. Outwardly, they can seem to be functioning fine but in reality, they’re in a constant state of hyperawareness that they’re going to be bullied again."

But apart from valuable anecdotal experience such as Frey’s, little is known about what happens to children who have been bullied at school after they move on. Most studies on the subject are conducted anonymously though schools, which makes follow up discussions with respondents almost impossible.

Eight adults with first-hand experience of bullying at school - both as victims and as perpetrators - spoke to The Sunday Business Post about the after-effects of bullying.

Some of them were bullied for periods ranging from between a few months to their entire school careers. We also spoke to two people who admit to having been bullies themselves: their stories give a frightening insight into the casual way this torment can be unleashed.

A lucky few have emerged relatively unscathed.

Most have not. They describe suffering episodes of self-harm, relationship problems, family breakdowns and suicide attempts. One young man recounted how he stopped taking his asthma medication as a teenager in an attempt to make himself ill enough to be hospitalised, thus avoiding school.

All spoke of their fears for their own children; some are so fearful of having to watch a child endure what they went through that they have decided never to have any of their own. Here are their stories.

‘It became all about survival’

Peter Donegan’s story

I always had a passion for plants. Started growing them under the bed when I was five. In Clondalkin in the 1980s, that made me odd. The fact that I was spending an hour and a half doing geranium cuttings in Brother Coleman’s glasshouse didn’t work in my favour when I went out on the hurling or rugby pitch afterwards. For a long time, life was hell on earth.

If you were into flowers, you must be gay. I remember going in with black eyes and bloodshot eyes - I don’t remember anyone ever saying, ‘Are you okay?’ They’d wait for me after school and you can only run so fast, or so long.

I remember in accountancy class one day, I asked a question - I was told by the teacher That maybe if you spent a little less time with the pansies, you’d know the answer. Once the teacher got involved, that was it. You were an easy target, then. It became all about survival.

I didn’t mind the beatings. The big thing was the isolation - you’d be standing in the school yard and no one would come near you.

Eventually, I dropped gardening for a year or two, and started playing guitar, grew my hair long and built up a really good vinyl collection. I survived by learning to fit in. I used humour to diffuse the situation.

Gardening was the only thing I could get lost in - it was the one thing I could do where the bullying and hassle and bits of stress would disappear. So it pulled me back in eventually.

I wish it was different, but at least I know what it’s like to be hurt or insulted, I know what it’s like to have your day or your week or your month ruined by an insult. I think it’s stood me in good stead - I run my own garden landscaping business now, and I’m respectful of everyone I come into contact with. I’m a lot stronger as a result of it.

My baby daughter, Ella, was born last week. She is my first child, and I have thought about it - what will happen if she comes home one day and says, ‘I was bullied’.

What would I do? I have thought about it and I still don’t know.

Peter Donegan Landscaping; 0876594688, or

‘I was hospitalised for ten days: it was heaven’

Al’s story

I was always a quiet child, and I knew no one in my new secondary school. It was a CBS and an underachieving school: fewer than one in ten out of around 100 pupils went on to third level. I was a good student with a passion for history. That was my mistake.

It started off slowly, with the odd glib remark from a group of guys who were into GAA. I didn’t react to them and withdrew into myself. They finally settled on a derogatory name for me, which I still can’t bear to say.

They found out where I lived and began turning up on my street. Here they started to tell my friends on the road about my ‘‘new name’’. They found it very funny, and began to use it when we were playing together. By the end of first year, I had very few friends left. Physical bullying would take place under the guise of sport -my tormentors would hit me with their hurleys.

I toughed it out for three years, put up the taunts, the harassment and the assaults before finally asking the Irish teacher for help. ‘Spud’, as he was known, told me to get on with it.

My parents didn’t care - my father regarded this sort of thing as ‘character building’ - and the school knew about the bullying, since it’s hard to miss 60 lads screaming at one bloke in a hall as he walked down it.

By fifth year, the stress had taken an effect on my asthma. I was hospitalised for ten days: it was heaven. People were nice tome - doctors, nurses, porters, other patients. I was amazed.

Three months later, I was back in hospital with pneumonia. I realised then that I was much happier there than in school. I stopped taking my asthma medication, or I would begin to look at ways to harm myself, including once chemically burning my hand.

I knew they wouldn’t keep admitting me, so I decided on balance I’d be better off dead. I saved up the pills I was getting for problems sleeping for a few weeks, and took the lot. I ended up committed to a psychiatric hospital. As a 16-year-old, this is the last place you wanted to find yourself.

I managed to get out of this hospital after about two months, and went back to school that September. I was kept back a year, so the bullying was slightly less intense.

About a month into the school year, some guys from the FCA came into the school to recruit us, and I kept the details and signed up a month later. It was my saviour.

Here, my confidence improved, I had to stand straight and walk tall, and I got fitter and stronger and started to believe in myself.

But I was in my 30s before I got help with the effects of both the bullying and the hospitalisation.

I’m still dealing with it. I can still be a bit shy about connecting with people and trusting people. I can sometimes let people take advantage of me in work.

I have decided that I am not going to have children. I’d hate anyone to go through what I went through. I lost contact with my parents, as I still blame them for leaving me to the wolves.

‘Eventually, I stopped talking’

John’s story*

It was one of Dublin’s top fee-paying schools. I joined in first year from a much tougher school from a mixed area. From day one, I was marked out as different. I was chatty and naive, not very academic. And they knew I didn’t have a gang to lean back on. I was wide open.

There was one person, in particular, who targeted me. I now realise he was projecting his own insecurities onto me - he has come out as gay. He bullied me constantly.

Around this time, I was also locking horns with the class tutor. She played favourites - if you were on the sports team, you were a person. In third or fourth year, I remember this teacher having me stand beside her desk while she ripped my homework to shreds. I mean, there were 80 mistakes in a 60-word piece of work. She had me in tears, and destroyed the last of my self-confidence. Imagine being 15 and being reduced to tears in front of your peers.

By this stage, I had figured out that this was a war - between me, the folks, the teachers and the bullies in my class. I dug in. I never did my homework. I didn’t write anything down because, if I wrote something down, it could be judged and marked.

Eventually, I stopped talking, too. I never Raised my hand for a question. I think, in my last two years in that school, I maybe asked one question at most.

I only realised I was being bullied when I went to the Gaeltacht. I was popular, had fun, asked questions. When my folks asked me if I wanted to move school for sixth year I said yes immediately.

For years, I hoped the bullies would rot in hell, but now all I feel is pity. All I want to do is to draw a line under it and move on. I thought about suicide. I thought about running away. I thought I was losing my mind at times.

Afterwards, I didn’t trust anybody. It affected my ability to have a relationship because I was so used to defence, I couldn’t let down the barriers. I am better at this now, but it took far, far too long.

I know now it’s the reason I don’t want kids. I didn’t want to subject someone else to what I went through. I only saw this when all my friends got married and had kids. I was thinking: ‘I want a piece of the happiness they have, the happiness I had stolen from me’.

‘They used to follow me up the road, write threatening notes’

Jennifer Foxe’s story

It was second year, when I was about 14 or 15. It only went on for a few months.

My parents were separated at the time.

I was living in Greystones and going to school there with my mum, but spent most of my weekend in Killester with my dad.

The gang I hung out with there were punks and goths, so that’s the way I dressed.

So I was a little bit outrageous, and also in the top stream at school, and predictably I got picked on. They used to follow me up the road, write threatening notes, and one day one of the girls threw a punch in the changing room after gym class one day. I lost my temper and knocked her down, and that kind of cooled it.

My mother says I lied to her about it - she found a letter in my bag, and they wanted to go up to the school, but I wouldn’t let her.

That was the worst thing that could have Happened.

I don’t even really remember their names - they don’t show up on Facebook or anything, and I’ve never heard anything about them since. It hasn’t really had a long-term effect on me. I shy away from confrontation and I’m soft, but I think that’s my personality, rather than an effect of the bullying.

‘I don’t know why they picked on me’

Lily’s story*

It started in primary school. I remember being teased about having glasses and freckles, the fact that I drank water with my lunch, or that I brought raw carrot with my lunch. I don’t know why they picked on me - it was a small town and my dad was a local businessman, but I was also an easy target: slightly overweight, wore glasses.

It was physical a few times. Once, in fourth class, I was walking to my friend’s house. A bunch of girls surrounded us and one stepped forward and punched me hard in the stomach. What is so strange is that I had then - and still have - a very close relationship with my parents, and I never, ever told anyone about this.

I guess the word ‘victim’ must have been flashing in neon over me, because the bullying started up in secondary school. One day, a boy in first year was taunting me and kicking me in the backside, and I turned around and smacked him across the face.

And yet, when I was bullied by the girls, I couldn’t stand up for myself. Maybe it was because they did it in groups; maybe I just hoped some day I’d fit in with them.

I eventually told my dad, but he wanted to ring the principal and I refused to let him. I said nothing more to him after that. I was afraid that telling would make it worse.

At this stage, it was daily taunts, about my weight mostly, and some physical punching.

By third year, a teacher told my mum that he was worried about me, as I was alone all lunchtime and didn’t play with anyone. I actually have no memory of that year at all. I had worse than no self-esteem. I actually looked in the mirror and hated the person I saw there.

At 22, I decided that life had to be better than this, and did some self-development courses which were an incredible help. It took me a good ten years to totally overcome the effects of the bullying.

Even now, I actually am close to tears for that little girl who was so afraid to tell and yet, at the same time, proud that I have overcome it.

‘I am still fighting the bullies’

Ruth’s story

I was born in 1965 in Dublin. I spent most of my time living in a middleclass suburb - first in a private primary school, then a convent boarding school. The majority of people I came into contact with were Irish and Catholic. In this situation, I was an obvious target.

I’m adopted. I don’t know how all the kids knew this, but they did. I can’t remember when the bullying began, because it seemed to be there all the time. They wouldn’t let me join in or play with them.

All I remember were feelings of inferiority and being on my own in a big, gated garden with my toys. I was always scared and jumpy.

Two sisters were particularly vicious - verbally and physically. In their house, they would bite me, scratch me, hit me. One particular memory is when they decided to make flapjacks. My job, they told me, was to hold the bowl, and one sister proceeded to pour hot syrupy mixture on my hands. I was bandaged for weeks afterwards.

Some of the nuns at my boarding school never missed a cue to tell me that adopted children were always outside society and could never be accepted. Fun times indeed.

In the middle of my BA exams, at 21, I broke down crying, and asked my mother why had she always sent me to the house where the two sisters lived, day in, day out, and she got such a shock at how distraught I was. She never spoke about it after that.

It hasn’t come to an end. It still goes on. I never developed any skills to deal with bullies and learned to avoid confrontation. And so today, at the age of 44, I am still fighting the bullies - this time in the workplace for the past eight years.

‘I was a bully’

Dave’s story* 

I was 14.Anewguy ended up in our class he was D4, he was pretty eager, and This was a country school and the culture was big on slagging. Bullying was rampant.

So he was singled out by myself and a few people for horrible abuse - if he put up his hand in class, we would snigger and mock. It wasn’t physical, until he eventually decided that the best way to fix it was with two fists. I respected him more after that.

It was easy to get caught up with it without realising what we were doing - I was probably a bit arrogant when I was confronted by the principal about it, but I was privately horrified. I had been bullied myself in primary school, and didn’t make the connection to what we were doing to him. I just thought I was giving your man a bit of a ribbing.

Honestly, I saw it as an opportunity to get a laugh from everybody else and elevate my own status. I didn’t set out to hurt this kid. A couple of years later, I apologised to him. After something like that happens, every time you look at them again you feel guilty and embarrassed about it.

When the subject of bullying comes up, you think, ‘‘Oh my God, people are so horrible’’, and then you think, ‘‘Hang on a second, I did that once’’.

‘I know what we’re capable of ‘ 

Paul’s story* 

It was second year in a small boarding school. A new boy arrived who was nervous, unsure of himself, twitchy.

Being young and stupid, some of us in a haphazard and uncoordinated way began picking on him; taking the piss, humiliating him, drawing attention to his uncertain and somewhat erratic behaviour.

I clearly remember one incident where someone - I’m really not sure if it was me - accidentally stood on his foot, and he apologised for getting his foot in the way. We thought this was hilarious and threw it back in his face at any given opportunity.

Thankfully, our bullying didn’t last long. One of the teachers spotted what was going on and took us all to task publicly in class, making his point angrily, but firmly. I don’t know about the others but I felt well and truly chastised and, knowing I was 100 per cent in the wrong, stopped the bullying behaviour immediately. Did I apologise? I don’t remember.

I’ve occasionally wondered if the fact that I now hate bullies - individuals, groups, corporations, countries - can be traced back to then. Probably not, but it certainly reminds me regularly that we’re all undoubtedly capable of it given the right, or wrong, circumstances.

* Some names have been changed 

This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 2, 2010


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