Louise Burfitt-Dons is a Conservative Party Activist and was candidate for Nottingham North in the 2010 general election. She is also is the founder of children’s charity Act Against Bullying.
In September last year, it was revealed that there were 5,500 sexual offences recorded in UK schools between 2011 and 2014. Within these figures, there were 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults and more than 600 reported rapes. So, last week, the Women and Equalities Select Committee, chaired by Maria Miller, launched an enquiry – and about time too. To hear of a child being raped by anther pupil in school grounds is horrific. But to counter this criminal activity with more sex education for young children, as proposed by the Labour Party, is not just a cop-out but deliberate obfuscation of a school bullying problem which has obviously got way out of control.
If you google “bullying”, you will access gigabytes worth of definitions of what constitutes it, how it is comes about, and which minority group is more prone to it. Some examples are: gay, cyber, military, legal, disability, prison, trans-gender, workplace, emotional. These categories have been added to, year on year, since the mid-1970s when Dan Olweus, a Swedish-born research professor of psychology, first made the subject of school harassment and its effects on children newsworthy enough to be taken seriously at all.
The recent epidemic of sexual harassment is just the latest classification. It is also the result of our inability to come up with effective punishments for bullying behaviour that will not only stem the tide, but also sit comfortably within the uber-liberal ideals of modern society. Despite circle groups, buddy clubs and thousands of leaflets informing teachers, parents and students on the latest “acceptable language” to counter it, the same problem keeps emerging like the many-headed hydra, reinventing itself in more graphic and insidious forms. How do we stop it? And if we can’t, how do we control the excesses?
Simply put, bullying is not about tittle-tattle, kids falling in and out of friendships or the odd sideways glance. Neither is it about the natural conflict that occurs when humans are brought together and obliged to interact. I had an e-mail from someone the other day who suggested that being called a “cissy” should be deemed harassment. But should it? Don’t we run the risk of over-obsessing with verbal offence, such as the radical feminist lobby trying to outlaw the use of “don’t be a girl” as provocative, sexist and dismissive. At what point do we leave speech alone?
Bullying is abuse of power, domination and intentional harm. Physical bullying is clear to spot because there are usually the tell-tale bruises, cuts and torn clothes. So, too, is mobbing, which is when an unfortunate victim is singled out in a school hallway, playground or bus, mostly because this sort of stuff tends to end up going viral on You Tube. However, the majority of cases are far less obvious.
At school, “power” usually means numbers or rank of popularity. When a group of five friends in a “cool” group organise situations specifically to deliberately ignore or “blank” someone either physically or emotionally, you have the typical case of school bullying, particularly where girls are concerned. It starts that way, and then, because of how human beings usually react to that group rejection, the victim soon begins to self-exclude. By the time the matter is out of hand enough to be reported to any authority figure, the trail leading back from the victim to the perpetrator is as obscure as that leading from a tax avoider to his offshore bank accounts. This bullying “evidence” can also involve the convolutions of the internet – fake accounts, mobile phones, texting and the dark web. So it is unsurprising that children today have to be as savvy about exposure and its consequences as a top-rated celebrity PR.
Sexual bullying is just the latest addition to this complex, developing bullying scenario. With changes in society, highly sexualised behaviour among pupils is now a norm. It is not even considered anti-social. Attributed labels that would have shocked and caused pain some years ago, such as “slag” or “slut”, take on different connotations today, as they are used as popular banter on Facebook.
Harder still to grapple with is the sexting phenomenon. Circulation of explicit photos either round schools or on the net is definitely on the rise. It is indeed a serious problem. Posting nude pics has already resulted in several suicides and depression. However, with teenage girls photographing themselves in their underwear and using sex selfies as their Facebook Profile it is hard to begin to unravel who is responsible when it all goes wrong. I personally know of one case in which – although entirely self-imposed – the bullying, ridicule and scorn arising from embarrassing pictures online led one victim to take her own life.
However, rape and assault is in another category altogether. The clue to this is in the terminology. A questionnaire by BBC Panorama aimed at young people aged 11 to 19 in schools and youth clubs found that 10 per cent of the 273 respondents had been “forced” to do something sexual, and just as many again had been intimidated by seeing it happening to somebody else. This is clearly bullying activity.
Parents have been complaining to me for the past 16 years that the real problem is exploitation by hardened bullies of the lax punishments meted out to offenders. But while no-one wants to neither see a return to corporal punishment, nor can we allow innocent children to be exposed to sexual harassment and rape within our schools walls, and just turn a blind eye.