Roger writing the LAWmag

Bullying: The Silent Persecution

Bullying is repeated, persistent and aggressive behavior intended to cause fear, distress, or harm to another person's body, emotions, self-esteem or reputation ► see the complete Legal Definition of Bullying). [En francais: intimidation à l’école ou sur le chemin de l’école ou de cyberintimidation.]

It happens in families, at the workplace and, especially, at schools where the most vulnerable of our citizens roam, often as unsupervised, emotional and sensitive lambs to the bully.

Human society, at least in most countries, has evolved so significantly that bullying is now not only a recognized problem in our schools but it is also often targeted by school officials in awareness and eradication campaigns.

But as children interact in this era of almost constant adult observation and supervision, the type of behavior William Golding described in Lord of the Flies has simply gone underground.

Two Canadian jurists on school law wrote:

"bullying and the lawBullying can be both direct (such as face-to-face) and indirect (behind the back).... Indirect bullying is more difficult to recognize and respond to because the person being bullied may not be present when the bullying takes place. The primary purpose of indirect bullying is social exclusion or the damaging of a child's reputation or status within a peer group. Examples ... include spreading malicious rumors or gossip about a child, writing hurtful comments about a child, and/or encouraging others not to play with a child. Girls have a greater tendency to take part in indirect bullying than boys."1

boy bullyFirst, some good news: fistfights are no longer a right of passage. Almost all baby boomers will recall the necessary involvement in one or several unavoidable fist-fights as a child when awkwardly, but in earnest, and in complete defiance of the law, one child would attempt repeatedly to hit another child in the face as hard as possible with a closed fist.2

Soooo Neanderthal.

In 2012, it seems the world is becoming a kinder, gentler place. Fist fights are no longer as frequent in the daily lives of children but the cruel behavior behind it now has a name: bullying. Bullying has not gone away - yet. It still hurts millions of children everyday, physically and emotionally, sometimes with fatal results.

One of the most exciting developments, and one which ought to be cherished by school children around the world, is the legal definition and identification of bullying (but consider that as of February 2012, no print or online legal or law dictionary defines bullying except for one: Duhaime's Law Dictionary - which also defines cyber-bullying). Some references, albeit rare, in law journals finally recognize bullying as a wrong and harmful phenomena, and one that has to be called-out and stopped.

Clinically, bullying is more than one-time name-calling and not all school fights include any element of bullying.

"Bullying is not ... the occasional teasing or insults or even physical intimidation that all children encounter as they grow up.3

For these one-time events, the schoolyard refrain of "sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me" may be enough to get the victim-child past the incident.

But less so as the attacks are repeated and become persistent.

As children discover the thrills of group interplay, they can also fall prey to the sociopathic radar of a bully. This perfect storm is the worst nightmare for a school child.

For the innocent child victimized by bullying, the consequences can be severe and lifelong, causing profound psychiatric and even economic damages. Almost by definition, there is no rationale behind the bullying which makes it difficult for even the most intelligent of victims to process the conduct. Still, they often blame themselves. Many children are worried about reporting bullying because that simply usually pushes it further underground or increases the bullies angst.

Arguably the worst feature of school bullying is the Lord of the Flies syndrome: the allegiance and support given to the bully by other peers. Those other peers are often regular schoolchildren but by the sheer peer pressure force of the bully's strong personality and campaign, these others succumb to the temptation of enhancing and empowering the bullying by participating in the ostracization and the gossiping; a bizarre phenomena of group sociopathy led by the bully (see Judge Rountwaite's comment below).

The other obvious reality for the bystander enabler: rare is the young school-child that would risk putting herself in the victim's place by standing-up to the bully.

This, in spite of existing criminal laws that prohibit the conduct.

In Canada for example, the Criminal Code which says:

"Every one commits an offence who, in any manner, knowingly utters, conveys or causes any person to receive a threat to cause death or bodily harm to any person…. Bodily harm means any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person and that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature.

"No person shall, without lawful authority and knowing that another person is harassed or recklessly as to whether the other person is harassed, repeatedly following from place to place the other person or anyone known to them, repeatedly communicating with, either directly or indirectly, the other person or anyone known to them … that causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them."

Faces

Phoebe Prince Phoebe Prince was a beautiful, 15-year-old student in Massachusetts. She had a bright Irish accent having recently immigrated from Ireland. She was a new student at South Hadley High School. When she landed a date with a popular boy, a group of nine peers began to taunt her, calling her a whore and a stupid slut, all outside the earshot of school officials.

On January 14, 2010, a car drove up to Ms Prince as she walked home from school. Her tormentors yelled epithets and threw a pop can at her.

Ms Prince entered her home and hung herself, simply unable to face another day at school.

As a confirmation of the sociopathy - or at least an absence of empathy - tendencies sometimes prevalent among schoolchildren, her memorial Facebook page was mocked and vandalized by the anonymous inscription of the word "accomplished" as in "mission accomplished". Although charged, her primary tormentor received a paltry sentence of 100 hours of community service.

In Roblin, Manitoba, student Gary Hansen hung himself in desperation in the midst of an intense bullying campaign by fellow students. This, even after his parents had kept him home from school for two full years because of earlier bullying. School boys voice taunted Hansen, calling him gay - a common bullying tactic.

Dawn-Marie Wesley of Mission, British Columbia left behind this suicide note:

Dawn-Marie Wesley

"If I try to get help it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls.

"If I ratted they would get suspended (but) there would be no stopping them.

"I love you all so much."

Marjorie Raymond Marjorie Raymond took her life in November, 2011 to end years of abuse at Gabrielle Le Courtois high school in Québec.

In Ms Raymond's case, the bullies had been previously disciplined by the school, even suspended, but they returned at it unabated.


Unfortunately, the list of children killed by bullying is long: Hamed Nastosh, Reena Virk (Victoria, B.C.) …. This, in Canada alone.

The Reach of the Law

Litigation is rare after a suicide. It is almost impossible for the mourning next-of-kin, after such a senseless event, to muster the strength and courage to expose their child's legacy to further abuse by publicity and an unresponsive or disinterested justice system.

For decades, courts around the world ignored claims that attempted to hold the school responsible for physical or psychological injury suffered by school bullying. "No cause of action" was the constant refrain in the halls of justice. Or, "The school did what it could."

The case often credited with turning the very slow wheel of the common law is the London, England case of Bradford-Smart, in which a student sued the school for psychiatric injury suffered as a result of bullying. But the judge's closing words were bittersweet:

"The courts should not find negligence too readily."

There are signs the wheels of justice are turning.

The parents of Phoebe Prince sued the school district and settled out-of-court for $225,000. This was a wise move on the part of the school. Reporters discovered that the pack of mean girls that killed Ms Prince was a gang of violent, female bullies who ran rampant under the noses of school employees who knew, or ought to have known of the the cancer, and who chose to write it off as normal teenage hormone-driven activity.

God bless Judge Rountwaite of the British Columbia Provincial Court. She was of another mind when the Dawn-Marie Wesley case came before her. As she gave judgment of the bullies, she spoke harshly of bullying in sentencing the perpetrators, convicting on the grounds of assault and criminal harassment, but adding a personal note:

"I was dismayed that people would gather around a bully, without recognizing that by doing so, they added to the power and intimidation of the bully."

And then another, very recent ray of hope when the Premier of Ontario announced groundbreaking legislation which would allow schools to permanently expel bullies for a second "conviction".

The proposed statute also seeks to implement an annual, province-wide Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week in November of each school year.

The Front Line

For educators, the situations that present are often complex, especially the courage it takes to call-out a bully.

But if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Most teachers and school administrators have that sixth sense to distinguish bullying from benign incidents but what it really comes down to for each individual victim is whether or not in their particular school, at the moment of opportune intervention, will the particular educator stand up for the child, call-out the bullying and take those difficult but necessary active steps of rooting out and killing the phoenix before it takes flight?

This task can be made more difficult by unreceptive parents of the bully who often prefer to blame the victim, or deny or belittle their child's conduct, thereby virtually assuring that the bully will accept his/her conduct as acceptable.

Every day, thousands of young children walk to school dreading every step because of bullying. Their ignorance of the law leaves them feeling lost and powerless.

It is incumbent upon the law - lawmakers, judges, lawyers and educators - to protect this most vulnerable segment of our society and to strive constantly, ferociously even, to condemn bullying and to implement a real zero-tolerance policy toward it.

REFERENCES:

Two of the images used above are © Vuk Vukmirovic and Laurent Hamels, Fotolia.com

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