A police officer teaches students how to avoid being bullied during an awareness-raising class at a middle school in Shenyang, Liaoning province.[Photo/China Daily]
Government tackles the growing problem of physical and mental torment on campus
The government has released a guideline to address the problem of bullying and student violence in primary and middle schools. The measures were released on Nov 11 by nine government departments, including the Ministry of Education, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Ministry of Public Security.
Schools have been ordered to strengthen awareness of bullying, to inform students about the consequences and to teach them to protect themselves. Moreover, students with severe behavioral problems face being transferred to special schools appropriate to their needs, and in serious cases, the perpetrators will face administrative or criminal penalties.
Local governments have been instructed to establish teams headed by leading local officials to oversee compliance, and officials will be held accountable for serious incidents or violence in areas under their control.
Students participate in an anti-bullying session at a primary school in Hefei, Anhui province.[Photo/China Daily]
The move acknowledges that bullying has become a widespread problem in China’s schools, spawning physical violence and mental anguish. In the most extreme cases, students have been forced to drink urine and even threatened with arsenic poisoning.
Xi Leng, (not her real name, but her username on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website) was bullied during her early schooling. Even though she turned 20 this year, she is still traumatized by her experiences during her “nightmare” years at primary school.
“I struggled desperately every day then, and even considered suicide,” the Shanghai resident said, recalling how her lunch was dumped on the floor because she refused to fetch a bowl of soup for a classmate in the school dining hall, her books were covered with graffiti and ripped, and her name was deliberately changed on her homework before it reached the teachers.
Xi’s problems began after a boy began acting aggressively toward her, but received no punishment except a verbal warning from the teacher. Gradually, she became the target of bullying for the entire class. “I had hay fever and had to use lots of paper tissues to wipe my nose, which many of my classmates found annoying, I guess,” she said.
She tried to fight the boy, but lost, so she told her parents about the problem. They spoke with the teacher in charge, but no action was taken.
Xi’s suffering didn’t stop until her parents said that they would bring the matter to public attention and allow the school and the teacher to suffer the consequences. Feeling the pressure, the teacher warned the students that if they continued to bully Xi, they would not be allowed to graduate from primary school.
“Back then, nobody took school bullying seriously. They thought it was just a nasty spat between kids－after all, I wasn’t beaten up or forced to hand over money,” Xi said.
For some victims, the effects of bullying can lead to crippling social dislocation in later life. Zhang Xiaoyu, another Zhihu user, wrote that her middle school classmates ridiculed and humiliated her because she had body odor: “All I thought about in those years was killing myself and killing those who humiliated me. I hated to hang out with people, quit school and suffered depression. Even now, I still have social phobias, a fear of other people’s attention and I do not easily trust others.”
Although a number of laws and regulations protect adolescents in China, none of them specifically targets bullying, which researchers define as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and behavior that is, or has the potential to be, repeated over time.
Too little attention has been paid to bullying in schools, according to Sun Hongyan, a senior researcher at the China Youth and Children Research Center.
Before May, when the State Council, China’s Cabinet, released a document ordering a nationwide campaign to target the problem, there was no large-scale survey of the situation, Sun said, adding that only low-level research has been conducted into the topic. “Some sampled 200 students, others covered just one school,” she said.
The lack of research doesn’t mean the situation isn’t serious.
On Oct 16, the Ministry of Education reported that 68 confirmed cases of school bullying had been reported between May and August, and in recent years, video clips uploaded to the internet showing teenagers bullying classmates have attracted national headlines.
Sun believes that many cases go unreported. “What has been seen on the internet and in news reports is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. Having conducted her own surveys, she said many children refuse to report bullying: “Some teachers tend to assume that it takes two to make a quarrel, so the victim also gets criticized. The worst teachers tell the victim: ‘You are not good, either’.”
Gao Xia, a middle school teacher from Jiangsu province, believes that many cases are covered up because bullying is not a topic that school principals like to talk about outside of campus.
“Even if the school management hears about on-campus bullying, they tend to remain silent and not discuss it outside of school, because the revelations would be extremely damaging to the schools and the principals’ reputations,” she said.
Research has found that bullying is especially serious among “left-behind” children, who live in isolated rural areas and whose parents have moved away to work in cities.
A survey of rural students in two (unnamed) provinces, conducted in October last year by Growing Home, an educational NGO, showed that 36.3 percent of the 6,120 left-behind children who responded claimed they had been bullied in school, and 48.6 percent said they had seen others being bullied.
Sun has conducted research into bullying among left-behind children. Her team asked nearly 6,000 children to fill out questionnaires. “By comparing the answers of those who are left-behind and those who are not, we found that children belonging to the former group have many issues. Boys tend to be aggressive, like to breach discipline deliberately and fight with others. Girls tend to be depressed and self-contemptuous－unhealthy emotions that need to be let out,” she said.
Many educators believe that left-behind status, combined with most students being the only child in their family, contributes to the problem.
Liu Hong, from Shenyang, Liaoning province, who has taught for 20 years, said: “Being the only child in their family, youngsters tend to look down on others. In many cases, they push someone out simply because they think that person is unpleasant to the eye.”
Researchers have discovered that adolescents who are bullied are more likely to have anxiety and depression, and grow up considering self harm. “Some people who were bullied in school have low-esteem for their entire lives and cannot properly handle relations at work and in marriage. Others become bullies themselves,” Sun said.
Education experts said teachers can play an important role in intervention, while Sun believes counselors should be employed on campus: “Not only for those being bullied but also the bullies themselves because they need to let the anger and hatred out.”
However, few schools hire counselors and many of those that are employed are not professionals, she added.
Xi Leng said she hopes the government and media will focus on the issue to change the lives of bullied children.
“When I was in school, no one paid attention to such issues. They thought it was just arguments between children, but for me it was nightmare. I hope no one ever has to go through the suffering I had to endure.”
Liang Shuang and Xinhua contributed to this story.