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Back May 8th, 2009 Forward
The more things change...

I spotted the headline and summary of this article sitting in my RSS ticker, and I wandered over to have a look:

Elite school's horrific cyber-bullying case
Two adolescent girls have been forced to leave one of Sydney's elite private schools because of cyber-bullying.

My first thought on seeing it was "I wonder whether the ones who were forced to leave were the victims or the aggressors", because let's face it, the usual pattern when any kind of bullying, harassment, standover tactics or outright aggressive behaviour occurs in a school setting is that the victims are the ones who move on. This one is one of those rare cases where the people who did the bullying are being expelled.

I read through the article and the accompanying comments, and the ones which hit hardest were the last couple - the ones from other girls who knew both the bullies and the victims. The ones which said that it was just all part of the whole school scene, and that having these anonymous aggressors mentioned in the media and being called "feral" by "randoms" was just plain nasty. Those made me really sad, because it speaks of a widespread acceptance of the way the social and political framework of the schoolyard is based on and supported by this sort of harassment and viciousness. It speaks of a lack of comprehension that there is any other way of handling social interactions between peers. It made me sad, but now it's making me angry.

It makes me angry, because I was one of the kids at the bottom of the social ladder. I spent my entire term at primary school and high school being effectively shat on from a height by my ostensible peers for the social crime of being different. My school experience was so marked by this harassment I wound up having a breakdown at university level because it wasn't present. I still haven't got over the anger I felt at realising the only reason I was bullied in my final years at high school was because the actions of my harassers were dismissed as being "kids will be kids".

So I say this: let the bullies face the full legal consequences of their actions. Make the schools legally responsible for ensuring kids know their actions have consequences - and if that means assault charges for kids who get into physical fights, or defamation charges for kids who perform cyber-bullying actions, then so be it. I realise it will take effectively an alteration of the entire schoolyard culture - first there's got to be a way of finding out what bullying is happening, then there has to be a way of preventing out-of-school retaliation for things like "dobbing" (ie telling a teacher you're being bullied); there also has to be a way of dealing with the provocateurs who tease a kid into striking out physically, or the ones who prod and prod and prod until someone lashes back. It means actually examining the culture which is being presented in a school, and it means the teachers all have to be conscious of their own internalised prejudices and preferences. It means pulling the whole thing to pieces and effectively rebuilding from scratch, and it means everyone in society has to be willing to support the effort, or it will fall apart.

First and foremost, we have to accept that while very young children cannot be expected to magically "know" the social boundaries, teenagers are not very young children. They are young adults, people who will soon be expected to take on adult responsibilities. There isn't a magic switch which is thrown at age eighteen, instantly turning a person from a child into an adult. By year eight and nine (ages thirteen to fourteen in Australian schools) teenagers are old enough to know what the social limits are - and they should be expected to behave within those limits, rather than pushing the edges of them to the point where they're committing crimes. Libel, slander and defamation are crimes in our society ("who steals my purse steals trash... But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed"), as are assault and battery, theft and similar. Maybe one of the earliest lessons at high school needs to be the nature of what our legal system defines as a crime - and what counts as one.

The failure in this case wasn't just with the two girls who were expelled. It wasn't just with their parents. It was with the school as well, for allowing their students to commit criminal actions (either with malice aforethought, or because they were bored) without pointing out where the limits of the law lay.

Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
Back May 8th, 2009 Forward