From humiliation to physical violence, school bullying is an epidemic that needs to stop

I have been overwhelmed by the sweetness of kids I teach at school. One student, seeing me without an umbrella, ran backward through the rain to walk with me under his. Another classroom, after a lesson on the differences between Tet and Christmas, pitched in to buy me a new pair of work shoes (mine had become worn out because size 9 shoes are hard to find in Vietnam) as a Christmas gift.

However, it was only recently when I witnessed, firsthand, otherwise sweet kids turn into brutes taking pleasure in harassing a fellow student. The target was a shy boy who stuttered and so during group work they would mock him by constantly repeating the first syllable of his name. Not just one or two kids, several of them. The victim would try to ignore them and continue his work but the bullies were relentless. When he finally walked away, another kid—the instigator and leader of the group—pushed him. Some of the students also shoved him while the rest observed with mixed reactions. I separated the victim from the bullies and made the students return to their seats. Later that evening I was racked with guilt and concern because I had done nothing else to address the problem.

Last year the US had 2.7 million cases of bullying among 50 million children, however, statistics on bullying in Vietnam are harder to find because corporal and verbal punishment in the home is not uncommon, therefore seeing the same violence spilled into school is seen as normal—but that may soon change after a recent bullying video went viral and made national news in Vietnam. Last year a 90-second video clip showed a schoolgirl driven into a classroom corner then punched by three girls. The image came to an end with a boy shouting, “How dare you do something against us!” and throws a pile of plastic stools at the victim’s head.

The video was traced back to Ly Tu Trong Junior Secondary School and the school board discovered that the incident had actually occurred three months earlier, during a break where the victim reportedly failed to listen to the head of the class. This proved that relevant authorities and the public rarely hear of school bullying unless it is unofficially reported, such as on the internet.

Students usually won’t defend a victim, and may join in to keep attention away from themselves. They tend to follow the consensus and if the consensus is “say nothing” then kids either become reluctant bystanders or an amused audience. Students are good at hiding bullying, even as victims. I often see students alone at their desk during pair work activities. I assumed the students just weren’t interested in participating. I never considered they weren’t being allowed to take part.

Mob Mentality

Some well-intentioned teachers worry that identifying a situation as “bullying” can harm the victim’s ability to “adjust” to being a victim through pretending it’s all in good fun. A teacher who tells a student, “No, the kids aren’t laughing with you, they’re laughing at you,” undermines a crucial defense mechanism of denial, a denial that also maintains harmony in the classroom. If everyone assumes that everyone is OK with the joke, nobody feels uncomfortable.

Typically, behavioral problems are dealt with through a group consensus. If a student acts out, there’s a discussion during class with the student present to talk about solving the problem. I once saw this happen after a student stole money from another kid. I remembered that got solved by getting the kids to sit around looking like terrified deer discussing what happened. The point is to reinforce the social cost of poor behavior, which in this case meant instead of learning the entire class had to uncomfortably stare at each other. This keeps kids accountable for their actions.

With bullying, sometimes submission to the leader of the group actually reinforces the ostracism of the victim. The group is the problem, and the group solves the problem. The “face-saving” solution—in which bullies explain that they are just making jokes, that they didn’t mean harm—is presented to the class in a way that inclines the class to believe the problem has been resolved. It is easier to approach that solution than to have a more difficult conversation about bullying, especially when the victim is in the room, and especially when most of the kids are complicit as bystanders or audience members. The point of these interventions is to pave over problems by restoring group harmony—because restoring the appearance of harmony is considered just as valuable as solving the actual problem.

Meanwhile, high school kids interviewed about bullying see it as a necessary tool for forcing students into adapting to social norms. According to research paper Bullying the meek: a conceptualisation of Vietnamese school bullying, students often used the term “meek” (hien lanh) when explaining bullying and its victims. When asked why he thought meek students were bullied, a boy from Hai Phong, who himself was bullied and considered meek by his classmates, explained, “Because they are considered weak people by others. They bullied me to do things that I otherwise would not do because I was shy. It helped me to try new things and I think I am more confident now. As far as I know, all students who witness bullying practice three no’s: no knowing, no hearing, no seeing.”

In an environment where students are forced to spend almost all their time together, they live under their own set of rules that aren’t always acceptable in society. Students tend to follow the pack, to think the way everyone else is thinking. I’m sure most students are against bullying, but often don’t know how to stop it so this is where schools and parents can play a crucial role teaching kids what to do when bullying occurs.

Talk to your kids. It’s not always easy to get your kids to open up to you. But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying.  Ask every day about their day—who they ate lunch with or played with at recess. That will lay the groundwork for your children to pipe up about little things before a crisis emerges.

Be an example. Your kids are watching—and learning from—your behavior.

Look for changes in your child’s behavior or belongings. If an outgoing kid becomes withdrawn or a strong student’s grades drop, take notice. And pay attention to personal items that are missing, torn or mysteriously show up in their belongings. These signs may indicate a child is being bullied or bullying someone else.

Treat the problem. Your response to bullying behavior will depend on the incident. For starters, the child must alert a parent or trusted adult when feeling threatened, intimidated or excluded. Then document the incident, and reach out to your allies: teachers, parents, principals and friends. Remember that the person doing the bullying requires help, too.