Bullying is defined as the “repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons”.
There have been many letters to the press and editorials written regarding this very troubling issue of bullying in schools. Talk show hosts on radio and television and their enthusiastic followers express outrage and offer suggestions to resolve this problem. Many propose zero tolerance as the answer. This makes for a powerful sound bite, inspiring false confidence in Government’s or school officials’ determination and ability to curb school violence. But the indisputable evidence from numerous studies shows such a policy and its concomitant twins – suspension and expulsion – leads to numerous negative outcomes, including later entry into the criminal justice system.
The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force reported in 2008 that severe punishment at schools neither reduces violence nor promotes learning. The United Nations Panel of Experts Report on School Discipline recommended in 2016 that “the US Government develop guidelines on how to ensure school discipline policies and practices comply with international human rights standards.” These experts recommended that “positive behaviour intervention and support and restorative practices in school discipline should be used for reducing disciplinary incidents and improving learning in schools.” Bullying, as well as other aspects of school misbehaviour, is not peculiar to Trinidad and Tobago. Research by Morrison, presented at the International Conference on Violence in Schools and Public Policies in 2002, revealed that “bullying in schools is a worldwide phenomenon and that statistics from Australia mirror that of countries such as Canada, Scandinavia, Ireland, and England and show that 50 per cent of children have been bullied at school at least once.” So what is the solution to this problem which has been described as a social justice as well as a public health problem?
A study of behaviour management in schools in Australia revealed that the abolition of corporal punishment in schools did not lead to a re-evaluation of the nature and exercise of power and authority in schools and suspensions and expulsions became the substitute. When this failed to bring about the desired result, schools began to look at other solutions. Restorative approaches have proven to be the successful solution to school violence and misbehaviour.
A parliamentary inquiry into bullying in Australia schools recommended the Rozelle School as a centre of excellence. The school had been “suffering significant behavioural problems among students, and the staff felt disempowered, until they decided to embed a whole-school philosophy of restorative practices, based on building, maintaining and repairing healthy relationships, with positive results.”
Restorative practices which teach principles of respect, accountability, and strengthening or repair of relationships, have been adopted in many schools in Australia. Research from Hong Kong and Hungary show that bullying behaviour dropped significantly where a restorative approach was adopted.
In Hull, described as the worst place to live in the UK by the BBC in 2005, restorative practices achieved outstanding results and in the United States, a number of high schools reported dramatic reductions in student suspensions and disciplinary referrals after instituting restorative practices. Restorative practices are now in schools and justice systems on every continent.
In the Caribbean, principals, deputy principals, guidance counsellors and education officers from eight Caricom countries were recently trained in restorative practices. Jamaica was the first to mandate training for staff in their justice and education systems. Last year, probation officers, social workers, Magistrates, correction officers and other juvenile justice practitioners from Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Vincent and the Grenadines came to Trinidad to be trained in restorative practices by Epiphany Consultancy Services. Their staff is licensed by the International Institute of Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have been conducting training since 2013. School guidance officers used to attend the training, until this was discontinued in 2014. Bullying is regarded by psychologists as a behavioural problem, to be treated as such and not as criminal conduct. Solving the problem of bullying needs to be a multifaceted approach. One Hong Kong study included the following recommendations:
1. The school must have a long-term anti-bullying policy, that includes peace-education;
2. The entire staff (including cafeteria attendants, security and janitors) should be trained in restorative practices, that is, circles to build relationships, and including restorative justice to repair harm when an incident of wrong-doing occurs;
3. The victim should receive training in how to face bullies assertively;
4. Since several studies prove that bullies lack empathy, they need training that builds empathy. They should also be trained in anger management, emotional control and rational problem-solving, to seek attention in socially-acceptable ways.
5. Workshops should be organised for parents to learn restorative practices. None of the three dozen or so studies on bullying in schools, which I have at hand, and which in turn discuss several mega-studies, recommend suspension of a principal after an incident of bullying, alleged or proven, in a school.