The Ministry of Education is mulling an anti-bullying plan for schools. Unfortunately, it is going about it in a rather aggressive way, by bullying teachers and administrators.
The push to combat bullying appears to have been prompted by two recent surveys. One, done by the ministry, found about 2 percent of junior high school students said they had been victims of bullying. A smaller poll by the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families found about 35 percent of junior-high school students believed they had classmates who were bullies. If those figures are true, the ministry is right to be concerned, because its Campus Security Center, which is tasked with dealing with bullying cases, reportedly receives just 10 reports a year.
Obviously there is a problem, and one that is not being addressed by the existing institutions, if so many students feel bullied or know of bullying and yet the ministry isn’t hearing about these problems. Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) responded this week by ordering the ministry to set up a preventive mechanism, which could include anti-bullying legislation.
However, the ministry seems to think it can force school administrators and faculty to take the problem more seriously — and be more pro-active in combating it — by cutting funding for schools whose principals or teachers fail to report cases of bullying before the ministry hears of them. Principals’ performance evaluations could also be affected. As for the students, the ministry thinks segregating offenders from the other students is the solution.
Most of the explanations about the ministry’s ideas have come from the director of its Department of Military Training Education. Perhaps the department’s name is misleading, but it’s hardly reassuring to think that military training and discipline is the right way to start tackling the problem of bullying, given the reports of conscript hazing and abuse we have heard over the years.
Why is the ministry’s first reaction to think of punishment? Why isn’t it considering that perhaps its current anti-bullying programs might not be effective? Why does it think segregating bullies is a solution and not just a way to aggravate whatever led the bullies to act out in the first place?
Bullying is not just kids being kids. It’s a huge problem, not just in Taiwan, but in many countries. It’s also a problem that has gotten progressively worse, because it has grown from the old era of schoolyard or neighborhood threats and confrontations into the world of cyber bullying through text messages, e-mails and Facebook vindictiveness. Any attempt to tackle bullying must focus both on the school and outside the schoolyard as well.
Bullying leads to injuries, both physical and psychological, to suicides and even murders. And it’s not just the victims or the bullies who are affected. Students who witness bullying also suffer, as do families and the school environment as a whole.
The ministry should be looking at ways to enhance students’ confidence in themselves, in their friends and in their teachers and councilors. It should be running annual anti-bullying activities and programs at every class level to teach children how to stand up for themselves and for others — and let them know where to go for help. It should teach inclusiveness and about the richness that comes with not everybody being the same. It should teach that being poorer, shorter, taller, skinnier, fatter, physically challenged, gay, lesbian or whatever is okay — as is not having the latest cellphone, videogame or haircut.
The ministry should also be educating parents about the problem, and about what to look for if they think their child might be being bullied — or a bully — and where to go for help. Parents themselves are sometimes too dismissive of the problem, especially if it is their child who is the aggressor.
The ministry is in the business of educating. That’s what it should focus on first, not punishment.