Annemarie Quill: Identify hurtful signs of bullying

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I know what's going to happen as soon as I leave home ...
I know what's going to happen as soon as I enter into school grounds ...
I know ...
Agony is awaiting me.
I can't do anything to stop the daily dose of torture that was about to commence ...
All I can do is sit here, alone, as per usual, reading a book that you threw into a puddle merely days ago.
My heart raced as I heard your footsteps. I could hear you snicker with your friends.
"It's the freak," You'd say.
But I'm a good girl.
I keep my eyes locked on to my book.
I'd try to ignore your every word ...
I'd try not to let it get to me ...

This poem extract, written by Zoe Winters a student from a Bay school, might touch a nerve with at least one in three young people in Tauranga. That is how many are affected by bullying, according to Tauranga Safe City's anti-bullying campaign Know The Signs, which launched this week as reported on page 3.

Police officer Dennis Bidois doesn't like the word bullying, he told the crowd at the launch event, which included police, teachers, community centres, social workers and the rugby union.

Bidois prefers to use the word "violence".

"Imagine if you used the words 'violence' against kids - people would be up in arms, but there is still a kind of attitude with bullying, 'oh that is just how it is, that is what we went through as kids'."

Many of us did. I know many successful adults who have told me of their traumatic experiences at school.

Bullying can be physical and escalate to the extreme as in the case in South Auckland in June when an 11-year-old spent 10 days in a coma after being stabbed by his 12-year-old classmate.

After the incident the ministry received a complaint from the sister of the accused boy about bullying at the school. The attacker is poised to return to the school.

Bullying can be more subtle, such as ignoring or exclusion. I can relate to Zoe's poem too. For one of my high school years I was excluded by a clique that made the Mean Girls look like the Waltons. No-one knew. I didn't tell anyone.

Not so quiet these days, on a recent summer day out with the kids I found myself in a strange confrontation with a stranger who launched a verbal attack telling me to "zip it gobby". When I gathered the kids up and walked away from her my son noticed she was running after us shouting angrily.

"Mum, let's run," he suggested.

Here was my chance to role model.

"No Jack, there is no need to run. We are not doing anything wrong; there is no need to be afraid."

Wrong!

Five minutes later she barged into me, pushing me against a wall, where I unceremoniously lost my jandal and she called me "fat". As my daughters sobbed, and my hands shook, I wondered, so what do you do?

Was my son right and we just should have run? Is there any point in trying to educate your kids that they can protect themselves against bullying, stand up to the bully? Or should we just teach kids to accept that is the way life is and make them as resilient as we can?

Accept that, as radio personality Matt Heath writes this week in the New Zealand Herald musing on his 5-year-old's recent school start, "The adult world is packed with arseholes. Isn't it better that children learn how to deal with them at school where they're safe".

We might not be able to reduce the number of "arseholes" in our lives, but what we do is learn to recognise signs of bullying.

The signs can be more elusive than ever as kids navigate a cyber-world that parents are not part of, and which presents ever more complexities and risks around bullying. Officer Bidois says adults "don't know what they don't know".

Tauranga Safe City's Know The Signs campaign is looking to help parents find out exactly this - what they don't know.

This project, led by Raewyn Mortensen and Mike Mills from Tauranga Safe City, with support from the Ministry of Social Development, was established to support community action to prevent bullying of children and young people under 19. While anti-bullying campaigns are taking place in cities nationwide, Tauranga is standing out for having the only campaign that focuses on the parents as well as the children.

Twenty-three classrooms in local schools are involved, each sponsored by 23 local businesses representing the 23 signs of bullying and students have been tasked to created their own campaign adverts for the Bay of Plenty Times. There is a website http://www.knowthesigns.co.nz with additional tools and resources.

As Tauranga Safe City's Raewyn Mortensen says, some of the signs may seem obvious and some not. The signs might not mean a child is being bullied but they help start a conversation.

And crucially, Know The Signs campaign educates on how to make the bullying stop and what not to do. As Mortensen says, many children don't tell adults either because they think nothing will change, or that their parents will make it worse. Many parents finding out their child was being bullied might risk rocking up to the school for a showdown such as a scene from This is 40 where the parents played by Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy trade insults in the playground and end up in a hilarious scene in the principal's office where McCarthy's character totally loses it.

Real life situations are not so funny. Whether the bullying is verbal, physical, digital or non-verbal exclusion, it is hurtful, stressful and harming.

We know as adults how horrible it is to be on the receiving end of nastiness, and many of us know how it feels as a child but still feel powerless to know what to do about bullying.

I really hope the Tauranga community gets behind the Know The Signs campaign. You will spot the message in buses, hear it on the radio and see it in the newspaper over the next few weeks.

Raewyn and her team will be out and about in the community delivering the information. I will be joining them one day as will Bay of Plenty Rugby.

As Raewyn told the launch party, there are four roles in a bullying situation: the bully, the bullied, the blind and the bystander. The Know Your Signs campaign aims to turn the "blind" into the bystander who can know how to step in.

The first step is showing that the community cares about this terribly important issue. To not leave kids alone with it. To step in for people such as Zoe Winters as she so eloquently - and courageously - portrays below.

You and your friends
laugh and wave around your hands as you walk away. All I could do was just ... Cry.
What did I ever do ... ?
I wish I had the courage to ask ...
I wish I had any courage at all ...
Then maybe, I would allow myself to scream for help.
But even then, who would care?

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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