I read a fascinating story in The Telegraph last week, the headline was; Schoolboy is first convicted of racist harassment of classmate.
What shocked me the most was the incredibly short-sighted and insensitive words by David Green, director of Civitas, the right-leaning think-tank, who said that while the boy’s behaviour should be condemned,
“the law does not belong in the schoolyard in these cases”.
“We are not talking stabbings or serious assault here,” Dr Green said. “This should be a matter for the school and the children’s parents.”
Josie Appleton, director of the anti-regulation think-tank the Manifesto Club, which will publish a paper on schools’ obligations over racist incidents this autumn, did little better with her comments:
“This should be dealt with in the school.
“Criminalising it undermines the authority of schools. Teachers have to be able to set a moral example.”
Why does this anger me so? I was a victim of bullying both physical and verbal/mental, and in all the different cases the school and the children’s parents failed to provide a suitable level of control or support.
It is interesting that “serious assault” gets mentioned because (having just spent half an hour reading up on the difference between ABH and GBH under British law) I was assaulted in a manner that would be legally considered grievous bodily harm. My injuries lead to hospitalisation, surgery, and an absence from school of more than 6 months. The bully in question was dealt with by the school, by which I mean he was suspended for the remainder of the afternoon and was back in class the following day.
As for verbal bullying, its effects are far more insidious. When the teachers refer to you as a wimp in your own hearing, and the bullies are told to “shake and make up”, all you find is that the bullies return with even greater vengeance later. The girl spoke of her fear of reprisal if she spoke out, and this is common in most cases of bullying. Expecting the school to provide the law, or for teachers to enforce the law as well as lead by example is farcical in a world where more and more legislation limits a teachers response, and frequently the uncontrollable pupils know just how far the law will support them in their misbehaviour. School is where a child learns to act in a social setting, and their experience here will impact their behaviour for the rest of their lives but if the child does not respond to kind words and gentle moral guidance and steps into the world of criminal behaviour then they should be held responsible for their actions.
Don’t think I am suggesting that every schoolyard infraction should be dealt with by the full force of the British legal system, but what is needed is a rational approach. The children that bullied me were known to the teachers as bullies, and I was repeatedly told to forgive their actions because “their parents were getting divorced” or “they had had a tough upbringing”. With words like this the school actively encourages the repeat offending by overlooking it and making allowances for the bullies behaviour. Schools should be swift to react to first offences but where it is not a single incident of a word uttered in the playground or a push in the locker room, but a sustained series of attacks over days or weeks (or as in this case in Lincolnshire 6 months) then the law should be brought to bear. Racial abuse, sexual harassment, and bullying in general is not legally permitted in the workplace so why should we allow it in the classroom?
Finishing off the comments made Sunil Khanna, the boy’s solicitor, said:
“I’m not sure a criminal prosecution was the right way forward.
“I know this goes beyond normal bullying, but mistakes that might have been down to youthful ignorance will now stick with him years.”
The conviction will pass for him, and will eventually fade from his criminal record, but his actions will have a lifelong impact on his victim. He had the right to a trial, access to solicitors, and all the benefits of legal process to offer him support in defending his wrong doing but his victim had none of this as she walked the hallways of her school in fear of his racist attacks. Speaking from personal experience I know that the psychological effects of the fear that she felt will last far longer than his criminal record, and will undoubtedly haunt her for the rest of her life. I have suffered with panic attacks, fear of crowds, claustrophobia, and have even been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. The impact of the bullying I suffered still effects my everyday life more than 20 years later.
“Youthful ignorance” excuses an unkind word that is swiftly reprimanded, but prolonged bullying cannot be excused and the victims of bullies need to know that if they stand up and say to their school that they need help, then the school and if needed the law should be there to help them!