EDUCATION: ARE SCHOOLS IGNORING A BULLYING EPIDEMIC?

Published April 7, 2024
Illustration by Essa Malik
Illustration by Essa Malik

Mrs Arshad’s son, Aalyan, was subjected to bullying at a private school when he was 14 years old.

“My child was traumatised to the extent that he refused to go back to school, and for two years we have been homeschooling him,” she reveals. “He could not sleep for a very long time and I have had to take him to therapy. However, it did not make any difference. I wish our institutions were a little more responsible.”

While bullying is a global phenomenon that has existed for centuries, its ‘trends’ have now evolved due to the increasing use of the internet and social media, where people bully each other not just through online comments but also by using deep fakes.

Being bullied can have a detrimental impact on one’s life, especially for young people. It is linked to mental health issues such as depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide, as well as external behaviour problems.

Typically, bullying can be categorised into four main types: physical, verbal, social and, a recent addition, cyber or online. According to a 2020 research paper published by the BMC Public Health institute in the US titled ‘Trends and Sex Disparities in School Bullying Victimisation’, over 10 percent of students globally said they had been bullied in school at least two to three times a month.

The rise of social media platforms and access to deep fake technology is adding a new dimension to and exacerbating the problem of bullying across many educational institutions in Pakistan

According to Mrs Arshad, “Aalyan performed at his school’s annual function. He was very excited and he would stay up at nights and practise, seeking reassurance from me. On the big day, he put on his best dress and woke up early. His performance went well, and it was recorded too.

“He came home really happy that day, but it all went down the drain when we saw the video posted online by the school in the evening. It was full of derogatory, extremely sexual remarks, and the school did not even bother to turn off the comments. My child read each one of them and was in utter shock at how unkind people can be.”

Aalyan’s mother says that her son was traumatised by the comments and could not understand why he was receiving so much hatred. According to her, the majority of the comments were about his physique, objectifying and sexualising him.

In a low and broken tone, Mrs Asrhad says, “One of the commentators took a screen-grab from the video and edited it in a way that made Aalyan look completely naked and, below that, people were literally throwing rape threats at my child, who was not even 15.”

Aalyan refused to go to school for a week. When he did go back to school, he was physically abused by students that belonged to senior classes. “He came back with a torn shirt, and a bleeding nose,” his mother says. “The first phrase he spoke the minute he arrived was, ‘I am not going back.’”

It has been two years and Aalyan hasn’t gone back to school. The management of the private institute where he was enrolled has reached out multiple times, promising to take care of his physical and mental wellbeing, but he is just too scared to go back.

Fourteen-year-old Natasha, who is enrolled in a ‘prestigious’ private school in Karachi, loved to dress up and apply make-up. Upon being encouraged by her parents, she started making small videos for her social media accounts, and that’s when things took a nasty turn.

Zarqa, Natasha’s mother says, “I had no idea what kind of culture was prevalent on the internet and how it feeds bullying at schools. If I had known, I might have done something to protect my child.”

Natasha’s pictures were taken from her account without consent and were edited through the use of deep fakes. The pictures were then posted on multiple Facebook groups with her account name, after which she started getting rape threats. However, she didn’t only face harassment and abuse online.

Zarqa narrates, “My daughter was pushed into the boy’s washroom, where the boys tried to lift her skirt up and touched her inappropriately. She had to run away. That day, when she came back from school, Natasha did not speak for a very long time.”

According to the victim’s account, the school did not have a proper code of conduct to combat a situation like this. “We complained to the school and they said they’d do something about it,” Natasha’s mother says, “but they never did. Later, my daughter was victim-blamed

for doing something that was not appropriate for her age. All she did was make dress-up videos online, which had no sexual connotations.“

Eos tried to investigate whether prominent schools in the country have any anti-bullying policies in place to tackle such issues, given that most government schools in the country do not. It emerged that such policies were almost non-existent at most private school campuses across Pakistan.

A City School spokesperson says there is no official school policy regarding bullying. But, he says, they arrange awareness seminars at their campuses for this very purpose. The same situation is prevalent in The Smart School, he says, which is a project of The City School.

Similarly, the principal of one of the Karachi Public School campuses said no such policy was in place at their campuses. The Beaconhouse School, however, said that they had an official anti-bullying policy but declined to share details.

A spokesperson for Army Public School, Lahore revealed, on the condition of anonymity, “We’re moving towards building a policy that will protect children to some extent but, honestly, we don’t think there is anything we can do about online bullying. Children need to build a thick skin to survive in the ‘real world.’”

Multiple private schools in Sindh and Punjab that Eos reached out to did not have a code of conduct regarding bullying and they claimed that, since any bullying culture was allegedly not prevalent at their institutions, they never felt the need to formulate a policy to address it.

A spokesperson for a well-known private school in Lahore says, “We never had to face a case like that, hence we never felt the need to build a policy. Also, I personally feel that kids should be taught to be insensitive towards a few things to survive in the real world. Things like these make them stronger.”

It must be noted here that the case of a girl being physically assaulted on campus surfaced at the beginning of 2023 of this very school.

All names have been changed to protect privacy

Aleezeh Fatimah is a member of staff.
X: @dalchawalorrone

Waqas Ali is a member of staff.
X: @WaqasAliRanjha

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2024

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