written by Prega Govender

100 children tried to kill themselves in the past year because of their classmates’ cruelty

When a Johannesburg schoolgirl missed class for a week after her father was shot in a hijacking, she expected fellow pupils to comfort her.

Instead, the traumatised 15 year old was bombarded with more than 80 nasty e-mails a day — accusing her of bunking school to have an abortion.

The Grade 9 pupil was an emotional wreck after becoming the target of relentless bullying by a group of five girls at school.

She is among thousands of pupils who fall victim to cruel school-yard bullies every day.

A major study on school violence by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, to be released this month, found that more than one in 10 pupils is physically bullied.

The study, involving 12700 primary and high-school pupils, found that bullying was one of the most prevalent forms of violence in schools.

Research director Patrick Burton said the investigation identified the increasing involvement of girls in bullying. This was confirmed by an educational psychologist, academics and organisations.

Childline said at least 100 pupils a year attempted suicide after failing to cope with bullying.

Describing the syndrome as having reached “pandemic proportions”, Childline’s national co-ordinator, Joan van Niekerk, said the helpline received one or two complaints of bullying at schools every day.

Childline’s KwaZulu-Natal office, which receives the highest volume of calls, records about 1280 complaints of bullying a month.

Van Niekerk said the organisation received an increasing number of complaints about girls being bullies. She said this was mainly emotional and verbal bullying.

In the UK and US, the term “bullycide” has been coined to describe suicides sparked by bullying at schools. Between 1994 and 2005, 75 “bullycides” were recorded in the UK.

A study on pupil absenteeism in South African schools released last week found that bullying was a significant contributing factor.

Figures supplied by the North West and Free State education departments show that 20 pupils were expelled for bullying in the past 12 months, and 50 suspended from class.

The Free State Education Department forced 12 bullies to take transfers to other schools and referred five cases for possible prosecution.

In one of the first court cases involving a claim for damages for bullying, a Pretoria parent is claiming R150000 from the parents of three pupils who bullied his son at a primary school in Centurion. The trio allegedly played the boy a song “especially for his mother, who is a bitch”.

Other recent cases of school- yard bullying include:

  • An eight-year-old Durban schoolgirl, who had just lost her mother, was continually robbed of her lunchbox and other possessions by three older boys, aged 10 and 11, before she was indecently assaulted by them in an empty classroom; and
  • A seven-year-old Grade 1 pupil at a private school in Johannesburg, whose parents had just divorced, become clinically depressed after being subjected to bullying by a nine-year-old classmate.

Janine Shamos, project director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, said the older boy tripped the seven-year-old, bashed his head against the wall and threw his possessions into the dustbin.

“The little boy had stomach aches and developed a complete fear of going to school, but did not tell his mother because he didn’t want to put more pressure on her after her divorce. ”

Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Wendy Sinclair, who said she dealt with four to five cases of bullying a month, said it had become “the norm rather than the exception” in schools.

“Cyber-bullying has become increasingly popular, especially with girls, as a tool for bullying others. It has become much easier to humiliate, abuse and threaten others because the messages can remain anonymous.

“Many victims of bullying are so traumatised and disempowered by the bullying that they often express, in therapy, a desire to die rather than suffer further humiliation and abuse.”

Professor Corene de Wet from the University of the Free State said a colleague’s daughter had regularly played truant after becoming the victim of bullies.

“She’s been receiving nasty SMSs. She comes home crying because she’s not part of the “cool” group,” said De Wet, who conducted a study on bullying in Free State schools two years ago.

Samantha Waterhouse, advocacy manager for a group known as Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, said provincial education departments’ initiatives against bullying were “hopelessly inadequate”.

“I don’t think educators really know what to do about it, ” she said.

The North West Education Department said its anti-bullying campaign for this year included an anti-bullying poetry competition and a road show.

This article was originally published on Sunday, 6 April 2008 in the Sunday Times.