Editorial: Bullying videos a wake-up call

The attacker was filmed as she knocked Robin de Jong to the ground and brutally bashed her. Photo / Supplied
The attacker was filmed as she knocked Robin de Jong to the ground and brutally bashed her. Photo / Supplied

Youtube and mobile phones with video capability long ago turned the planet into a digitally connected global village.

Thus Casey Heynes, the Sydney schoolboy who dumped his tormentor Ritchard Gale to the concrete, after he repeatedly punched him, was able to become an instant media celebrity after a grainy cellphone video clip of the altercation was posted online.

The simplistic analysis of the ethical issues involved looked a little threadbare as soon as some flesh was put on the bones of the story. Casey, it emerged, may not have been blameless; Ritchard claimed he had also been a victim of bullying, by Casey and others.

Yet the story spoke to some familiar archetypes: of the chubby boy snapping after years of abuse; of the feral youngster who had been allowed to get away with too much for too long.

More important, it struck a raw nerve in all parents who worry about the potential threat posed to their children by daily attendance at school.

As ill luck would have it, we had an even nastier example closer to home only a few days later: the stomping into unconsciousness of 15-year-old Wanganui schoolgirl Robin de Jong by a classmate.

The two incidents, which have sparked a heated response on talkback radio, in letters to editors and in the blogosphere, even prompted prime ministerial comment.

John Key said he was worried about "thuggish-type behaviour that needs to stop" and instructed his Education Minister Anne Tolley to write to all boards of trustees, reminding them of their responsibilities.

The response, while no doubt sincerely intended, was rather wet, and echoed that of Sydney's Department of Education, which has given all schools until December to ensure their "anti-bullying plan complies with the updated policy".

Unsurprisingly, the deputy principal at Robin de Jong's school said it had "zero tolerance" of bullying and an anti-bullying programme. No doubt Chifley College has the same. But parents know as well as politics-watchers that there is a world of difference between policy and practice.

There's a case to be made that the widespread circulation of the bullying videos exaggerates the risk by virtue of their dramatic presentation of the problem. The vast majority of our children come home from school each day without having been stomped into insensibility.

But the videos and the horrified public discussion about them serve a useful purpose, by confronting us with the reality of an ugly problem we cannot ignore, or seek to dismiss as aberrant variation from policy and best practice.

In public discussion of the matter, statements of the obvious abound: bullies are, by definition, troubled individuals, almost invariably being bullied in their turn; the rights of victims should be given precedence over those of their tormentors; retaliation is cathartic but is counterproductive since an eye for an eye makes everyone blind.

We need to grapple with something more radical: how social breakdown, related to economic disadvantage, fuels anti-social behaviour. And we must look at how our adult culture - sport, reality television, cinema, advertising - is saturated with images of violence.

John Key's idea of convening a meeting of experts to see if New Zealand schools have best practice in place to counter bullying is worthy. But we all have a duty in this matter. Educating our kids and our mates to understand that violence is not OK - is never OK - is too important a job to be left to experts.

- Herald on Sunday

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