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Have Children Lost Their Innocence?: Bullying and its Long-lasting Effects

 (c) Dr Claire Ayelotan

Dr Claire P. Ayelotan

On this day, April 24th, I came across a media report from The Guardian Nigeria about a student named Namtira Bwala, who her classmates bullied at Lead British International School in Abuja. The report included a link to a viral video showing Bwala being repeatedly slapped by her peers, who were laughing during the incident. Without the courage to share this video, the severity of this bullying may not have come to light. In another video, parents were seen escorting Maryam Hassan, the main perpetrator, into the school, where one woman slapped Hassan before being stopped from doing so again. Would retaliation against Hassan and her complices undo the harm already inflicted on Bwala? Has she previously experienced bullying at the same school, and for how long? Why did no one speak out against these girls? Lead British International School has been closed for three days to investigate this matter.

It may be valuable to present a similar ongoing problem from a different location in order to provide readers with context. Currently, numerous European countries are grappling with a rise in bullying within educational institutions, with some implementing initiatives such as ‘Anti-bullying Week.’ In the UK, a recent SchoolsWeek report revealed that schools are installing toilet sensors that actively monitor students. While this move has faced criticism from some quarters, it underscores the seriousness of bullying and its urgent need to address it. In another BBC report, an entire family had to move due to their son experiencing repeated racial bullying at school, with teachers failing to intervene effectively. This eventually resulted in Ofsted deeming the school inadequate.

Bullying is also a significant issue in Belgian schools. According to a 2023 RTL info report, approximately 35% of the students experienced bullying. Many of these cases involve repeated incidents in which, despite initial interventions, the bullies resume targeting the same peers. By February 2024, close to 280 schools had committed to addressing bullying, which is becoming more prevalent, with one in three students being victimised. To underscore the seriousness of the issue, even Queen Mathilde visited the Salto School to support anti-bullying efforts. The school has implemented the KiVa-Koulu program, funded by the Finnish government and developed by the University of Turku, which is known for its success in tackling bullying in Finnish schools.

In addition to the unprecedented and recurring severe violence perpetrated by delinquent youths, leading to numerous deaths in recent weeks, France is also grappling with a significant problem of school bullying, known as le Harcèlement scolaire. The government and other concerned parties are implementing various measures to address this escalating issue. According to Cnews, approximately 700,000 students have been victims of bullying, with a disturbing number resorting to suicide in recent years. In 2023 alone, three teenagers from different educational institutions took their own lives due to the sustained bullying they endured at their schools. These instances demonstrate that bullying is a widespread issue globally, extending beyond Nigeria and prestigious private schools, such as the Lead British International School.

Are Children Truly Innocent?

According to the Encyclopaedia of Child Abuse, bullying is defined as the use of force or verbal threats to coerce a child or adolescent into doing something against their will or to publicly humiliate them in front of peers of a similar age. This definition explicitly addresses bullying among young individuals, which is relevant to the aforementioned case study. It is important to note that bullying is not limited to children, adolescents, and young adults, as it can also manifest in adulthood and various settings, such as workplaces, religious institutions, retirement homes, siblings at home, and unexpected places. While the Lead British International School is a prestigious private institution in Nigeria, it is not exempted from instances of bullying. It is a misconception that bullying is unlikely in such an esteemed environment. Bullying is a severe form of violence that can occur in any educational setting, whether public or private. Furthermore, individuals targeted by bullies may not only be students but also teachers who can be subjected to victimisation by their students.

Bullying, in all forms, has severe consequences for victims. The emotional, physical, and psychological damage inflicted by school bullying can last for a lifetime. Many individuals carry the scars of such mistreatment, impacting their sense of self-worth. The psychological torment endured can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a lack of trust in oneself, others, and society. Some individuals turn to alcohol or other substances to cope with pain. Tragically, some victims may even contemplate or attempt suicide as a way to escape the relentless abuse. Those who reach out for help and receive timely support can overcome their ordeal. Although they may never fully erase the trauma, they can gradually heal and move forward.

                I want to take this opportunity to urge the parents of children who have been or are currently victims of bullying. Communicate with your children! Bullied children who keep their pain inside may end up hurting themselves. Refrain from blaming them for what they have experienced, regardless of the circumstances or stories told. No one has the right to bully another person, especially when it comes to children bullying other children. It is an act for which your child is not responsible.

               Furthermore, your child’s disabilities or vulnerabilities are not to blame. Each child is unique and deserves to be loved for who they are. Avoid placing all the blame on your child. Try to understand their perspective. If needed, consider seeking professional counselling to assist your child in overcoming their trauma. Additionally, instruct your child not to seek revenge but to distance themselves from the situation if possible.

The unique nature of each bullying incident makes its identification challenging. The motives behind such actions can vary, making it easy for them to go unnoticed unless action is taken. For example, one might question why certain schools in the UK have facilities in secluded areas. This could be because perpetrators of bullying tend to avoid open spaces to avoid detection. In the case of the Bwala videos, the attackers targeted her in isolated areas, such as an empty classroom and corridor. Because the intentions behind bullying can differ from the actual act, stopping the perpetrators in the act remains a difficult task for schools and other affected institutions.

Moreover, the memory still lingers of a significant event in January 2024 when a video went viral, revealing four Nigerian caregivers bullying an older woman with dementia residing in Reigate Grange, a care home in the UK. Without the family’s decision to install a hidden camera to capture these cruel acts, the police may not have believed their claims. Similarly, the case of Bwala and her school came to light due to someone sharing videos online; however, what about the numerous other victims of school bullying in Nigeria? Their stories may remain untold, either due to their reluctance to speak up out of fear or because their schools opt to stay silent to avoid repercussions or harm to their reputation.

Bullying victims often include individuals with disabilities, low self-esteem, sensitive dispositions, and those in vulnerable circumstances. While some may opt to retaliate to protect themselves, others, such as Bwala, may choose to avoid direct conflicts. Bwala’s decision not to engage in self-defence should not be seen as a sign of weakness; therefore, I hesitate to label her as a victim, as her remarkable maturity was evident in her bravery and resilience during her challenges. Demonstrating self-restraint is a form of dignity. In many situations, not just those related to bullying, maintaining one’s dignity often involves remaining silent. Throughout instances of abuse, Bwala remained quiet and passive, allowing her tormentors to continue without her reaction. It was not that she was unable to defend herself; instead, her passive silence highlighted the cruelty inflicted upon her. Had she responded with violence in self-defence, her abusers could have twisted the situation to make it seem like she initiated the altercation. Some individuals might have fought back and escaped, while others might have retaliated and carried emotional scars for life, assuming that they survived.

However, there are inquiries into delving into the backgrounds of the individuals engaging in bullying behaviour. What was Hassan’s upbringing and the upbringing of others responsible for the incidents at Bwala? This information remains undisclosed for now unless the media provides further details. It is evident that bullying stems from behavioural patterns. It is crucial to recognise that bullies come from diverse family environments, some from harmonious households while others from dysfunctional ones. The fact that the perpetrators of Bwala come from affluent families does not guarantee stability in their homes. A large number of children involved in bullying have origins in homes plagued by domestic violence, though not all. Many of their parents have endured bullying during their youth, leading to a likelihood of perpetuating such mistreatment onto their children or partners. The vicious cycle of abuse and violence affects children’s interactions with the world, shaping their understanding through the lens of aggression. Witnessing persistent mistreatment and brutality inflicted on one parent, often their mother, by the other, typically their father, normalises violent behaviour towards other children. However, not all children exposed to or experiencing violence at home display aggressive tendencies or engage in criminal activities.

Given the rise in bullying incidents, it raises the question of whether children should still be regarded as innocent. If there were no prior instances of abuse or violence within her family, what could have motivated Maryam Hassan, the main accuser, to assault Bwala? Should we attribute her actions to the influence of the content she encountered on social media? Is the school itself to blame for her inappropriate conduct? Was she aware of the potential repercussions of her behaviour? In the video, Hassan can be seen purposefully slapping Bwala, even as the latter tried to move away; Hassan pursued her and continued striking her in the face. This behaviour suggests a lack of accountability on her part. How many other children might she have targeted by bullying?

Examining whether the innocence of young bullies has been compromised requires acknowledging that the source of the problem stems from parenting. Recently, the French Prime Minister suggested establishing specialised schools to support challenging children engaged in persistent violence and bullying, resulting in their expulsion from regular schools. However, ongoing discussions are centred on the accountability of these children’s parents. A considerable part of the French population argues against investing in these specialised schools, asserting that the real issue lies in parental guidance. It is clear that the structure of parenting is in crisis, not only in France but also in countries like Nigeria. Many of a child’s behavioural issues can be linked back to their family environment, as the home acts as the primary environment in which a child initially learns about life’s basics, social norms, and the significance of respecting and caring for others.

Although numerous parents strive to raise their children effectively, the widespread societal issues affecting the youth indicate that this is not true for a significant number of parents. It can be contended that contemporary parenting is increasingly shaped by social media and a culture of entertainment, causing many parents to prioritise these pursuits over dedicating quality time to their children. If parents are incapable of offering proper guidance to their children, can educational institutions such as the Lead British International School or specialised schools effectively assume this responsibility? Likewise, the success of the KiVa project in Finnish schools does not guarantee its effectiveness in all Belgian schools in the long run. Without confronting and remedying the root cause of the issue, which often originates in the home environment, efforts could be squandered instead of being allocated to more beneficial endeavours for society. The primary focus should be on addressing the flawed parenting practices. It is essential for these parents and caregivers to fulfil their obligations. Why choose to have children if they are incapable of raising them adequately?

To conclude, the main argument is that the primary focus of efforts to prevent all forms of bullying and promote a peaceful, non-violent society should be on the parents and guardians of children. Government, educational, and religious institutions have limited influence in comparison. These institutions should raise awareness among parents and guardians regarding the importance of educating their children. Parents need to educate their children that bullying is a serious offence with consequences. Children who are unguided against bullying constitute a future time bomb for society as a whole. Resorting to physical punishment, as seen in the third video, will only worsen the issue as bullies may continue their behaviour. It is evident that using physical discipline or justifying it as a reasonable punishment will not resolve this problem. Parents and guardians must communicate to children that any form of violence or mistreatment towards a child by another child is a violation of the victim’s rights and must be addressed seriously. They should also emphasise that every child, regardless of their abilities, deserves to be treated with respect, admiration, and acceptance without bias. Without implementing these measures, an increase in school bullying in Nigeria could be anticipated.

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