Natural Justice and School Safety

Bullying needs to be dealt with immediately, forcefully, with the full weight of school board policy and law - even in its earliest stages, even if it hasn't yet become physical.

By Michelle Martin
Published May 04, 2009

By now everyone has heard about the 15-year-old boy in Keswick who punched a fellow student in the face (breaking his nose) in self-defence, after his attacker pinned him up against the wall, taunted him with racist epithets and punched him in the mouth.

Of course, the student who acted in self-defence was charged and suspended, while the bully who had a history of this behaviour was left alone. Once again, in school, the person who starts the fight gets off lightly, while the person who finishes the fight gets punished.

While it's true that racist attitudes are at play here, I'm going to suggest another contributing factor to this egregious injustice. Bullying behaviour everywhere isn't adequately punished because it involves time and trouble on the part of school administrators.

Bullying needs to be dealt with immediately, forcefully, with the full weight of school board policy and law - even in its earliest stages, even if it hasn't yet become physical. Anyone who has ever been to school knows that the modus operandi of a bully is to provoke and provoke in the sneakiest manner possible until the victim yells, or swears, or strikes out in exasperation, then enjoy watching his or her victim get in trouble.

But things like name-calling and face-making don't appear as immediately serious, and there's a lot of paperwork involved in suspending someone, even if you've got witnesses and an obviously upset target (provided the targeted child isn't too self-conscious about so-called tattling)...

So things aren't always handled according to the principles of natural justice. Even when there's evidence of physical harm to the victim alone, justice isn't always done.

Years ago, when we lived in Toronto, my oldest (now 21) was in grade five. One day, a schoolmate of his began to shove him repeatedly in the schoolyard.

He started out defending himself by making "I statements", the way students were all taught in the nineties. However, "I don't like it when you shove me repeatedly" wasn't getting him anywhere, so he knocked the kid's arm out of the way, once. In return, the kid hit him in the eye.

As a result, they were both hauled into the office.

I happened to stop by the school, can't remember why, but I walked in to see my son, with a scratched and swollen eye, being lectured by his teacher about using "I statements". When the teacher briefed me about what happened, she informed me that both my son and the other boy would be writing letters of apology.

I told her my son would not be writing a letter of apology to anyone. End result? No punishments for either boy, not even for the instigator. The kid never bothered my son again, though.

Four hundred classmates of that victim in Keswick stood up for him in protest. I wonder how many of them are motivated not only by the desire to stand firm against racism, but also by the fact that they've seen too many similar situations (of varying degrees of seriousness) over the course of years in school.

They know what it took my generation so much research to figure out: that contrary to ABC after-school special wisdom, bullies don't suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Bullies actually suffer from an over-abundance of it, and an accompanying lack of empathy for others.

Justice needs to be done, and to be seen to be done, if schools are to be both physically and emotionally safe places to learn and grow.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 04, 2009 at 13:13:46

Just to be clear, thought I should mention that I obtained my son's full permission to recount the anecdote which concerns him above.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted May 05, 2009 at 08:04:04

Bullying is very prevalent in our society, it is everywhere, in the schools, in our workplaces.

It seems to me at times that ones that are suppose to protect others against bullying are the ones promote and perpetuate bullying by their complete inaction and by their position in our society.

In this particular case the only one that should of been suspended, was the one that started the whole fiasco in the firstplace. Why should someone be punished for protecting themselves? Maybe the school principal, teachers and so on need to be on the unemployment line, to be stripped of their ability to earn a living for perpetuating this disgusting level of violence.

Anyways, for those who have to deal with bullies in the workplace, Bill 168 has passed its first reading. Soon, these personality defects that use fear, threats and intimidation will have the law after them. It is about time that this issue is being addressed.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 05, 2009 at 08:18:46

For those who haven't seen this yet, here's an update on the Korean boy who was suspended.

Thankfully it looks like common sense has prevailed.

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By no more (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2009 at 09:38:26

I was bullied pretty badly in grade 7 & 8. Back then, nothing was ever done for the victim or the bully. In fact, I was told by everyone to "just ignore it, and they'll stop" "it's part of growing up, deal with it."

The effects of the abuse I endured at school were long lasting - I ended up embarking on a dangerous path in my teens that I might not have otherwise taken if I didn't feel so beaten down and broken. I had a good family, it was my school life that put me in danger. Safe schools? That idea to me is an oxy-moron. Nobody could or would protect me in school.

But my son will have protection - I will stop at nothing to keep him safe in these diseased institutions.

We've come a long way in dealing with this issue - but still have a long way to go.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 06, 2009 at 08:08:59

Just saw this now, new research about the potentially serious repercussions of bullying for the victim:

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By Blah (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2009 at 09:11:34

^Ironic that the bullying National Pest can report research on the harmful affects of bullying with a straight face.

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By punked (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 10:52:31

Bullying is more than a difficult social problem; it is the basis for our ideas about how civil society is organized. When punishment is used to deter undesireable behaviour or when superior physical force is used to restrain individuals and groups, that is bullying. Granted it is better that such bullying should be administered by legitimate civic authorities than self-proclaimed leaders, but it is still bullying and serves as another example to youths that bullying works and is legitimate. Remember that bullies seldom work alone. They seek and need a sycophantic following to legitimize their aggression.

Finding an end to bullying isn't about determining who is right or wrong in a given situation. It is about finding unthreatening, non-violent methods of persuasion, or even avoiding persuasion entirely when it is not necessary, freeing people make their own decisions.

I don't know if there is a viable alternative to ultimately applying superior civil force when facing dangerous and illegitimate challenges to individual security, but calling for punishments and the "full weight of the law" cannot end bullying. That is just another level of bullying.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2009 at 01:23:55

Do you really consider police, CSIS and other law enforcement agencies actions to be bullying? You equate the police apprehending a thief or drunk driver with a large 17 year old stealing a small 15 year old's lunch money?

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