Hugh Reilly: Stamping down on bullies in schools

I KNEW that throwing the orange peel at him was wrong, but everybody else was doing it. The fruit skin hit Johnny Duncan full on the face, not my intention, but a direct result of his desperate bobbing and weaving tactics to avoid other bits of discarded food being hurled at him.

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry

He was “the meegie”, the pariah pupil in my primary school (the etymology of that label has proved elusive). According to the rules laid down by the class bully (now a principal teacher of physics in a west of Scotland comprehensive), classmates had an obligation to make Johnny’s life a misery. On days when this poor creature was absent, the playground heavy would randomly choose a temporary “meegie” to be tormented. Peer group pressure and the risk of being ascribed “meegie” status compelled otherwise decent kids to participate in this abominable behaviour.

Almost 50 years later, I still think of Johnny Duncan and the hell he endured due to my cowardice. To my knowledge, no action was ever taken against the bully. Back then, it was probably perceived to be slightly misguided horseplay or, in the eyes of some ex-army teachers on the staff, a character-building experience for Johnny.

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It was a classic case of bullying: the actions were repeated, aggressive and involved a power imbalance. However, bullying is not always so clear-cut. For example, if a student lashes out and strikes a fellow learner, this isolated incident would not be recorded as a bullying incident under most anti-bullying policies. More often than not, schools wait for a pattern to emerge before declaring a kid to be a bully, a process that inevitably needs innocent victims to be Exhibits A and B in a meeting to decide the culprit’s fate.

When I was a classroom chalkie, I was a great believer in a bully receiving some of his own medicine to help him see the error of his ways. It was often impossible to conceal a smirk on hearing a teenage “hard man” getting a pasting from disgruntled relatives of one of his pitiable targets. On both a psychological and physical level, beating lumps out of a shoe-box gangster frequently imbued hitherto missing interpersonal skills. Sadly, the wringing hand brigade gained supremacy, presenting as fact the absurd notion that the bully is also a victim. On hearing tear-filled parents tell of their anguish that their ginger-haired kid had been hospitalised by a ned twice his size, the touch-feely mob knit their brows, nod knowingly and then, in hushed tones, inform the distraught mum and dad that the gloating aggressor deserves their sympathy. Why none of these idiotic pastoral care teachers is ever strangled on the spot remains something of a mystery to me.

Despite foundations built on sand washed twice daily by flowing tides, restorative justice remains a key component of bully-proof procedures. In a typical set-up, the perpetrator is confronted with the impact his actions have had on his trembling scapegoat. The default position of the abused is to sob uncontrollably while relating their pain. A few metres away, the violent youngster sits with his head in his hands, wondering what’s for dinner and how much more of this twee drivel he can take.

Bullying usually involves an imbalance of power, often linked to sheer size or physical strength. However, with cyber-bullying, it can be more subtle. The important thing is to consider why the victim felt unable to stand up to his abuser. In Scotland, the fear of being labelled a “grass” stops children reporting a bullying event. Other kids feel that their concerns will not be taken seriously by teachers. Thankfully, as a consequence of having to cough up huge pay-outs to victims, most councils have raised staff awareness of protocols to be followed when a child files a bullying complaint.

Of course, pupils are not the only victims of bullying. It is not unknown for a school management team to harass individuals deemed to be part of the “awkward squad” that has had the temerity to question decisions that have a negative impact on pupils. Management sanctions range from giving a stroppy Sir a timetable replete with the school’s most ill-disciplined scamps to declaring an obtuse teacher surplus.

In my opinion, bullying has decreased in recent years. This view will be of little comfort to kids enjoying a six-week break from their tormentors. For the sake of the Johnny Duncans of today, schools need to do even more to eradicate this evil in our midst.