Thursday, 11 June 2015

School Safety and Cyber-Bullying

What is Cyber-Bullying?
Bullying as history relveals (in any form) is nothing new! In its broadest sense, it is driven by a malicious intention of causing mental, emotional, and in some cases, physical trauma. Things go dreadfully wrong when it all ends up in physical injury to the victim. In many cases, physical injuries soon heal, but then it is the mental trauma that takes longer to heal! Ragging in higher institutions like colleges is another form of bullying!
The  Social and Cultural Context
In many cases, bullying is an attempt to assert a sense of power and control on new inductees into the institution. It is an attempt to assert conformism, and impose the accepted philosophy and norms on new students. History stands testimony to instances of bullying meant to bring about conformism to popular accepted norms and beliefs. This has been recorded in history where mainstream communities have attempted to impose their beliefs on marginalised communities. Take for instance, the caste system in a country like India. The scourge of untouchability, denial of privileges from those who belong to marginalised communities, and a general attitude of looking down at those who don’t belong to mainstream communities may all come under the ambit of bullying. In a country like Ethiopia, I have witnessed the animosity that exists between the  Amharas, Habeshas, Tigrans and Eritreans in the social context where there is an equation of  a mainstream community and a marginalised community. In India this can be seen in the way the upper caste society looks down at dalits, and lower caste communities. The way Jews  Gypsies and gays were treated by the Nazis in Germany during the second world war is an important example of bullying. Even the West has seen its share of discrimination on the basis of colour, ethnicity and race! In a world that is so divided on the basis of culture, caste, creed, and colour, bullying has become a norm that is often overlooked because it causes an embarrassment to the ruling party that claims to be proponents of Democracy.
Analysing the Problem
Bullying in its worst form has taken a step forward with the advent of the fruits of Information Technology. The use of Social Networking sites, to propagate hate crimes, and to post remarks meant to cause grievous mental trauma to the victim who doesn’t conform to the popular accepted social trends or norms might be defined as Cyber-Bullying. In a world that is divided between the so called weak and strong people, Cuber-Bullying is a practice that helps stoke the ego and sense of  supremacy of the perpetrators of the crime. From the Psychological perspective, this is all about exercising a sense of power. It is true, however that a large number of people who bully others are themselves people who need help, they are themselves suffering from some kind of an inferiority complex and a feeling of insecurity caused by a fear of losing their supremacy by an upstart who might supersede them. People who resort to bullying are control freaks who fear that they will not be in control with the coming of new students. It goes without saying that people who resort to bullying in all forms are themselves victims of insecurity and they are often victims of abuse in some form or the other. Popular social networking sites offer a platform for  disseminating derogatory comments and ideas that are malicious and emotionally traumatic in nature. These comments are often viewed by a large number of “friends” and they cause a high level of embarrassment to the targeted victim. There is a sense of “Vicarious enjoyment” in making a derogatory comment about someone who doesn’t conform to one’s accepted philosophy or beliefs. To tell someone that he or she is fat and ugly, or that he or she is a pest is insensitive in nature and it could have far reaching repercussions! In some extreme cases, the perpetrator might even tell the victim to go and “die!” A popular site amongst the young people is based on asking questions. In many cases this is based on asking questions about a third person in the chat, and in many cases it is about vilifying the victim to brag about one’s sexual exploits over the person false though it might be. Such comments meant only to brag about one’s prowess and so called conquests might in the end result in disastrous results. A few instances of young students committing suicide might be the result of coming under an attack on one’s character and integrity. This is more likely in the case of students who are still in their early teens. Such victims who give much importance to social acceptance and conformism to  norms might in the end decide to take drastic steps to end their lives since they have failed to be part of the club! If a particular student doesn’t want to take drugs, or party till late at night or be sexually active, or even maintain multiple relationships it means he or she is not conforming and thus inviting the ire of those who want to exploit him or her. Being called a “nerd” or being “too prudish” or even “too holier than thou!” In the world of conformism, being termed “prudish” is as bad as being called a “slut” or being '”licentious”!
The Role of Parents
Perhaps the best people who can help children who are victims of Cyber Bullying are the parents themselves. The family is incidentally the most important unit of the society, and it is the first level at which the crime of Cyber-Bullying can be prevented before it blows out of proportion!
a) The best that the parents can do is to connect to their children, and spend quality time with them. Parents as such should be able to be approachable to their children, and even if they don’t get enough time to spend with their children, they can at least end the day with a brief talk about how their children spent the day.
b) The worst that the parents can do is to attempt to monitor their children’s activities on the internet as this would in some cases cause them to circumvent these checks and make their children secretive in the extreme sense. If however the parents do have a connection with their children, they can at least show interest in the names of friends that their children have.
c) In some cases, spending time to meet the friends of their children personally, being friends with their children on social networking sites, and working actively on addressing problem areas with their children might help in the long run! Unfortunately, graveyard shifts, long working hours, work and marital related stress, broken relationships have resulted in a growing gulf between parents and children, often leaving the children to fend for themselves! Children below the age of eighteen are often vulnerable and in need of adult supervision throughout their school lives. It is clear that even working parents need to spend time with their children. Single parents need to spend even more time with their children to make up for the absence of the the second parent.
The Role of the School
In the perspective of today’s society, the school is the second best bet for fighting Cyber-Bullying. Students spend a lot of time at school with classmates, friends and teachers. In such a situation it is imperative that schools address the problem of Cyber-Bullying as a major issue affecting the mental health of their students. The first step towards addressing the problem of Cyber-Bullying is to accept the nature of the problem.
a) Promoting a culture of Inclusion
Schools can do a lot to address the issue of Cyber-Bullying by adopting a culture of Inclusion. Inclusion is about spreading a philosophy of dignity and respect for one another. Education in its ideal form can help empower students who belong to less privileged sections of the society, and it can help students with inherent weaknesses of character and physical deformities to strive to overcome these handicaps. The benefits of  of the philosophy of inclusion can also extend itself to the perpetrators of Cyber-Bullying. Students with tendencies to  bully others can be trained to be more sensitive to those who don’t conform to their ideas of what is “cool” and “hep”. The culture of Inclusion can help sensitise students towards the different needs, abilities, and qualities of others.
b) Mentoring
It goes without saying that mentoring is an important aspect of school life, and responsible teachers should be given the roles of mentors for students. Teachers as mentors are given specific roles as mentors and they are given specific periods within the school timetable to work on a one on one level with the students allotted to them. When teachers try to spend time with their mentees, they try to connect with their students, not just as teachers, but as parent figures. Mentorship should always be given to teachers who are themselves well balanced, self actualised, and are able to connect with their mentees. Popular teachers are often prized mentors, although other teachers should also be trained to take up such roles.
c) Setting up of a dedicated Cyber-Bullying cell
Since the issue of cyber-bullying is  a serious one, schools should set up a dedicated cyber-bullying cell to take up issues arising out of incidents of harassment. Besides subject teachers who form the core of the cell, the I.T. expert and the principal should form an integral part of the cell. The cell should have good connections with the local cyber police organisation. The members of the Cyber-Bullying cell of the school can also include teachers whose children are studying in the school. The cell should include an equal number of female as well as male teachers in Co-Educational schools which have children of both genders.
d) The role of Counsellors
It goes without saying that any good school should have a dedicated Counsellor. These Counsellors are trained professionals who can address problems arising out of cases of Cyber Bullying. They are trained well enough to prepare case studies and to conduct counselling sessions with both victims of Cyber-Bullying and their parents. In extreme cases, School Counsellors are able to take the matter up further with Police departments and other law-enforcement agencies, and in the extreme case advise Paramedics and Doctors in instances where medical intervention is required in a worst case scenario.
e) The Student Council is a viable organisation within the school which can be trained to tackle, besides other problems, the issue of cyber-bullying in situ. Since students might be better able to relate to their own fellow students, classmates, and seniors, it would be a good idea to sensitize office bearers towards the need to help their fellow school mates to overcome the fear and trauma caused by being hounded on social networking sites. In many cases, the first level of intervention and the source of identifiaction of the problem could be the student council itself. It is only when the problem cannot be resolved that the student council escalates the issue to the next level.
The Responsibility of the  Society
Ideally, the problems arising out of instances of Cyber-Bullying should not go undetected. The three levels of intervention can be done at the family, social and school level. The best solution to the problem of Cyber-Bullying lies in its early detection. If the three organs work together, then it is quite possible that the problem of Cyber-Bullying can be nipped in the bud. Intervention is the second best. Rehabilitation and counselling can take place only if there is timely detection of the problem. Punishment is the last step. It signifies a breakdown in the first two steps. In many cases, punishment takes place only after grievous harm has occurred to  the victim. This in itself is a tragic phase because it signifies the irrevocable loss of two lives. In most cases where cyber-bullying has led to the death of the victim, the apprehended culprit might have to live with a sense of guilt all his or her life. Reformation is a long process and it will be seen that it would have been better if the whole issue had not been allowed to reach the stage where the perpetrator of the crime was arrested and incarcerated.
The Society needs to be sensitised about the problem of Cyber-Bullying. This can be done through public awareness campaigns, the use of the electronic media, and the print media. Perhaps the most important thing that can be done is to make the society aware of the fact that it has a major responsibility in curbing the crime of Bullying in any form. One cannot stand as a mute spectator to a crime unfolding before us. It is not enough to claim that one did not have anything to do with it. To be a mute spectator to a crime unfolding before one and not to take action against it is as bad as committing the crime itself!

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