The reality in our schools: Playful Bullying or Actual Violence?

Slide1.JPGBullying, ragging, hazing…call it what you will, but we need to look at this through a new lens and see it for what it is –violence and abuse. Bullying is seen by some as a rite-of-passage, but it can cause serious physical and psychological harm to a child. Children who are the victims of violence at school are more likely than their peers to display signs of depression and generalized anxiety disorder. What’s more, victims of bulling may suffer from low self-esteem, high anxiety and social difficulties even as adults. Victims of violence in schools are more likely to contemplate suicide, and this is particularly dangerous as parents often miss the warning signs.

So why do we underplay and normalize what really is a serious issue in schools today? We at Aangan want to understand how we can affect the way violence in schools is dealt with. But first, let’s dig deeper into what the prevalent situation is in terms of bullying in schools.


Peeling the layers on school violence

In order to better understand the ground reality of the level of violence and abuse in schools today, we did a survey of current school-going children and former school students (currently adults) from different parts of the country, on the key triggers and perpetrators of bullying.

With the caveat that this research covers only a small spectrum of elite and mid-level schools and convents, here are some of our key findings.

  1. A total of 159 incidences of ‘bullying’ that caused physical, sexual and emotional harm was reported, including 35 recurring incidents.
  2. Of this, 51% of incidents were to do with emotional abuse, 42% were physical abuse and sexual abuse at a worrying 7%.
  3. Surprisingly, it’s not just students who are the perpetrators of bullying or violence. Teachers were the perpetrators of abuse in over one-third of all incidents.
  4. Females tend to recall more emotional abuse (67%) compared to males (51%). On the other hand, males experience more physical abuse than females – with 46% reporting such incidents compared to 28% females.

The numbers only tell half the story though. Rather more informative are the actual statements of the people interviewed. For instance, one school-going girl recounts her experience of how the teacher contributed to her mental harassment.

The teacher told me to stand on the bench, saying ‘Yeh to hamari class ki model hain’. Everyone in the class made lewd gestures like they were throwing money, like I was a bar dancer. It was a humiliating experience and I’ll never forget this.

Cyber-bullying too is showing its ugly head in schools. One of our survey respondent shares:

“I know this one girl who is seventeen, and has now been in and out of depression many a times. They have WhatsApp groups for different divisions in her grade, and a few of them have lewd comments about her breasts. She has also been touched inappropriately several times by boys in her school. In her art class, she frequently draws images of shooting herself and of bloodshed.”

There are several other disturbing incidents that have emerged from the survey. Students being teased for the color of their skin, the way they talk, look or dress; students being beaten and stabbed with pens, sticks, and even knives; girls being asked by their teachers to jump up and down in class for wearing skirts ending above their knee, boys being told to remove their shirts as punishment for not having paid school fees – the list is endless.

While a few incidents from the survey do show that some teachers look to prevent bullying, they’re more often than not complicit in allowing this to happen. Can we really afford to let this continue? Should teachers and schools be allowed to continue to hold no accountability for the safety of our children?

The larger evidence pointing to violence in schools

Do our study and the academic studies we’ve looked at corroborate what happens in the real world? Unfortunately, it does. There are several media reports of young students being irreparably affected or committing suicide due to the constant physical and emotional abuse they were subjected to.

Consider just a few instances of teachers being the perpetrators of harm. This rather shocking video of a teacher slapping a student in front of the class forty times has just come to light on September 1, 2017. The presence of a CCTV indicates that this is in all likelihood an elite school. The teacher has now been suspended. In 2014, Rouvanjit Rawla, from one of India’s premier schools, La Martiniere Kolkata, had committed suicide after a ‘severe physical thrashing’  at the hands of the principal and three other teachers. In August this year, a young 8-year old girl was slapped for not cleaning a table, one which she didn’t even dirty. Her hands were tied behind her back on a chair, and her mouth was stuffed with a cloth.

Child perpetrators too have pushed naive young children over the edge on several occasions. This July, Raunak Bannerjee, a 14-year old from a renowned Bengaluru School committed suicide after being bullied in school. He had named his bully in his suicide note. In 2015, a 15-year-old class 10 student, R. Karthika from Chennai took her life. She experienced harassment from both girls and boys at her school, and her mother noticed physical signs of abuse on her daughter’s body. When the mother approached the headmaster of the school, she was told that her daughter had brought the mistreatment onto herself by being talkative. In 2013, 11-year old Oindrilla Das was locked in the bathroom of her school by her seniors for seven hours; she didn’t survive the trauma. Several other cases of violence abound, but are still often referenced to as ragging or bullying without the necessary gravitas.

Finally, there are cases of sexual assault and molestation which are increasingly cause for concern. Incidents comprise of rape of girls as young as 3 years old, to sexual harassment and molestation of students by school staff and older students, amongst others. Even as more incidents come to light, it is quite likely that several other sexual harassment incidents remain under wraps.

In conclusion, it is impossible to look at these incidents and then brush them away as inconsequential. So, let’s recognize it for what it really is – acts of VIOLENCE – with lifelong and often severe repercussions for the child. If we hope to protect children from harm, we can no longer excuse such violence amongst students or between staff and student, as an unavoidable aspect of schooling. There needs to be a more concerted effort from all stakeholders concerned – parents, teachers, school administration – to nip in the bud any instances of violence towards children. A lot is at stake for every time a child is teased, hit or abused, from his physical and mental well-being to his entire future. We hope that schools start looking at violence more seriously and take more responsibility in preventing it.

The author, Neeti Daftari, is the head of Knowledge and Impact, at Aangan

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