SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Quiet menace that makes life a misery


From the six-year-old girl isolated and ignored on the school bus, to the 12-year-old boy carrying the school bags of several fellow students, to the overweight 16-year-old whom they call Fatty; bullying is an everyday part of school life for many Hong Kong students.
The problem is a universal one in local and international schools, and no part of the world is free of it. Although bullying can be violent and involve triads, it is not this that worries experts most.
There is usually a system in place to deal with overt challenges to school discipline, but the more insidious forms of bullying, such as name-calling or quiet threats that leave victims depressed and demoralised, are often not addressed.
David Simpson, an outreach worker with the KELY Support Group, said that for students in international schools that KELY works with, bullying was a big problem.
It is one that parents and schools should not ignore. Victims can become withdrawn and miss out on education by refusing to go to school. Psychologically, the damage can be long term, with victims entering adulthood with low self-esteem, unless they are given the life skills and support to overcome the experience.
KELY has helped South Island School and Sha Tin College to set up anti-bullying campaigns and last year launched a peer support programme in seven international schools to help young people control the problem with the support of teachers and KELY.
But most schools are less pro-active. Mary Leung Ling Tien-wei, director of Baptist Oi Kwan Social Services, said that students were exchanging more insults and considering it a game, a situation she felt was exacerbated by the prevalence of such comments on television and radio.
Bullying can take many forms. The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups hotline hears of the traumatic experiences that children and youths face, often with little support or understanding from schools and parents.
Anita Lam Siu-fong, the hotline supervisor, said the primary school children who called in said they were threatened with losing friends unless they did the bully's homework, bought snacks for them or carried their bags. Sometimes their food was stolen from them. These children may have been labelled as bossy or gossips so had few friends to turn to.
Bullying is more sinister at secondary school when victims may be approached and asked to hand over money for "protection" to someone claiming to be a triad member, with the threat that they may be called at home or beaten up, she said, adding that this was not a common problem.
Victims may be asked to join a gang and to do the bully's homework or pay for their meals.
A native English-speaking teacher (NET) in a local secondary school said she saw one student carry six bags from class to class and other students come under pressure to complete their classmates' schoolwork.
Students were frequently called 'stupid' if they got an answer wrong and insults in general were handed out freely, she said. "The victims hold it in and hold it in, but every now and then they burst into tears and run out of the class," she said.
Lei Chang, an associate professor in Chinese University's department of educational psychology, has studied bullying and said victims tend to withdraw and become depressed. One of his recent surveys found almost half of primary school children studied said they were often bullied in one form or other, including being excluded from play, being hit or pushed, or being teased or laughed at.
In comparison with the United States, Hong Kong children were less aggressive, he said. But bullies often suffered from the same problem: they lashed out at others and were hurtful because they could not properly control their emotions. Unaffectionate, authoritarian parenting exacerbated such behaviour, he said.
Ms Leung said that parents could be an important part of the solution. "Parents need to set a good example, they need to be able to give more time and energy to their children. There should also be media education and value education in schools so children can acquire certain values," she said.
Ms Leung's organisation is conducting a project promoting positive values in 30 secondary schools, but the local system generally takes a hands-off approach to bullying. The NET teacher said other teachers rarely stepped in to stop bullying, unless there was fighting or outbursts in class. The Education Department gives only a cursory introduction to bullying in its workshops for guidance counsellors, who are also teachers with regular teaching duties.
"The main objective of student guidance and discipline is to facilitate an orderly and caring learning environment in the school," Brian Lee Shiu-fung, senior inspector (student guidance), said.
"Not many schools have a clear bullying policy because they take a more holistic approach to discipline and guidance, for instance including the handling of homework, uniforms, fighting and classroom discipline."
A pro-active approach is taken at Hong Kong International School, where bullying is viewed as harassment. Counsellors go into classrooms to talk about harassment and, for students in the 12- to 14-year age group, each class nominates three 'peer helpers' who are trusted to sort out problems.
In more serious cases, a meeting is arranged by counsellors between the victim and bully, and they sign a confidential agreement to solve their problems.
Counsellor Phil Koester said it was surprising how often victims wanted to talk to their tormentors. But equally so, the bullies were often unaware that they were hurting another's feelings.