During the holidays Marie Bentham cried as she told her family about being bullied at school. Her concerned mother had already contacted the school which had followed its bullying policy and fully investigated the incidents. The bullying had continued. The day before school resumed, Marie refused to go back. Her mother was unsure how to deal with the situation and sent her to bed, convinced that children must go to school. Eight-year-old Marie Bentham strangled herself with her skipping rope that night - it was her only way to ensure she would never have to face those bullies again.
Marie Bentham is the youngest recorded suicide connected with bullying, but far from the only one. These suggest there is no safe level of bullying, but victims bullied for a year or more are six times more likely to contemplate or commit suicide and four times more likely to suffer lifelong lack of self-esteem. A survey of over 1,000 adults showed school bullying not only affects people’s self-esteem, but also their ability to make friends, succeed in education and in work and in social relationships. Bullying also results in anxiety, headaches, nausea, ulcers, sleeplessness, lack of confidence, isolation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashes of anger and hostility.
Bullying may be verbal, physical, psychological, sexual or consist of ostracism. It occurs in the playground, the classroom and on the way to and from school. Physical injuries have included bruises, black eyes, broken bones, internal injuries, scarring, damaged testicles and kidneys, and being blinded in one eye. Bullying activity has included stabbings, severe beatings, being strung upside down in toilets and almost drowning, being thrown down cliffs into water and pushed onto the road in front of oncoming traffic to being raped or having objects inserted into various orifices and almost killed. Bullying understandably increases anxiety and depression, decreases learning abilities and causes lowered immunity.
Bullied children wake knowing bullies are waiting to torment, humiliate and hurt them. Some people believe bullying teaches children to stand up for themselves. On the contrary, bullying is destructive, humiliating and abusive.
School policies cannot prevent bullying. Most bullying is not reported to, or noticed by, teachers. A Canadian study videotaped children playing in a schoolyard and found teachers were aware of only 17 per cent of the bullying observed by the researchers.
Even when schools are aware of bullying and follow their bullying policies, there is no guarantee it will stop. In Marie Bentham’s case the school reportedly took the complaints “very seriously”, “investigated them fully” and “dealt with them promptly”. The local council investigating Marie’s bullying said, “There was nothing to raise any serious concerns”. When these words were written, Marie was already dead.
Although officially condemned, bullying is an unavoidable fact of school life. Australian bullying expert Dr Ken Rigby has found 50 per cent of Australian school children have experienced bullying and one in six is bullied weekly. It has always been a problem in schools.
Sometimes teachers quell obvious bullying but do not notice more devious bullying. Schools claiming to have no bullying are regarded by researchers as “bullying black-spots”. Australian expert Evelyn Field believes “under optimal conditions bullying can be reduced by up to 50 per cent” but that it “cannot be eradicated”.
Many anti-bullying books urge parents to teach their children self-respect, assertive skills and how to make friends to “bully-proof” themselves, but these skills are difficult to achieve, especially for children already stressed by bullying. As researcher Keith Sullivan points out, “To suggest that people … being bullied should stand up for themselves is not only unfair, it is also unrealistic. If they could have stood up for themselves, they would not have been bullied and the bullying undermines any vestiges of strength they had.”
Children need to learn skills to enable them to cope with bullies in later life, and home education provides a much more respectful environment to learn them. Children absorb values, beliefs and morals from those around them. They can learn these more effectively in the safe environment of home and naturally widening social circle as they get older. Ideally their parents will model assertive behaviour and conflict resolution skills and family relationships will inevitably offer endless opportunities to practice them. Children can learn to confidently communicate and stand up for their point of view in a supportive and safe environment.
Some experts claim bullied children tend to come from families where parents are not assertive. They might argue that home education would only compound their problems by protecting them from exposure to bullying behaviour at school, leaving them unable to defend themselves from bullies as adults. It seems an odd solution to condemn children to years of abuse and its long-term effects so they can learn to deal with it. Moreover, the Kidscape survey concluded that, “contrary to popular opinion, bullying does not help children to cope better with adult life. In fact it has the opposite effect.”
Bullying, together with school violence, is now a major reason for choosing to home educate. Sadly many parents who know about home education have been brainwashed to believe children must go to school. However, families are now showing their capacity to see the truth. Bullying is an inevitable part of school culture and children are better off home educated.
Susan Wight is a Victorian mother who, together with her
husband, home educated her three children who are all now well-educated adults.
She is the coordinator of the Home Education Network and editor and a
regular writer for the network’s magazine, Otherways.