Bullying in Czech schools is on the rise. Although statistics indicate that more than half of Czech primary and secondary school students have either experienced or witnessed bullying, some schools remain in denial, claiming they don’t have a problem. Two years ago, three high school students took the matter into their own hands, setting up a web page where students or victims of bullying can report the abuse and get help.
Tereza Bečičková has good memories of her first years at school and nothing prepared her for what was to come when she entered high school. The bullying started with small humiliations, where she was ridiculed and made to feel like an outcast. Gradually, things got worse and Tereza reacted as many other victims do:
“I started out scratching myself with a protractor, then it was knives and razors, reaching a stage where it was life-threatening. I accepted what others told me as a fact. I started hating myself.”
She went through all the stages that victims of bullying go through – self-harm, anorexia, bulimia and severe depressions. Eventually she collapsed and ended up in hospital.
Not all youngsters who experience bullying suffer such consequences but many are left marked for life by the experience. The first symptoms are unwillingness to go to school, bad grades, mental problems and in the worst case suicide attempts or suicides.
Surveys among both students and teachers indicate that aggression in the classroom is getting worse and more children are experiencing bullying. According to a survey conducted by the Scio agency more than half of Czech primary and secondary school students have either experienced or witnessed bullying. Two girls from high school spoke in anonymity.
“There was a boy in my class who was a target of bullying, he was ridiculed, laughed at and the kids in our class would play all sorts of pranks on him – sometimes he would sort of try to join in which kind of masked the fact that he was being hurt.”
Despite the large number of children who have experienced or witnessed bullying, some schools are unwilling to even discuss the problem. Michal Černý is head of the Masaryk primary school in Prague.
“There are still schools that play-down the issue, that do not think that bullying is a problem. Even now you would find school masters who will tell you bullying does not exist in their school.”
Michal Černý is not one of them. Not only are his teachers given advice on how to deal with the problem, but he himself insists on being kept informed about any cases of bullying that take place and how they are dealt with. The school also has a psychologist who acts as mediator in order to find out how things stand. Černý says the school deals with two to three cases of bullying every year.
“One case was in a very good class – where we seriously did not expect such behavior. One of the girls rebuffed a boy who then wanted to get his revenge on her. Gradually other boys joined in tormenting her in all the usual ways, tearing up her things, spreading stories about her, ugly insulting messages written on the blackboard and on social networks.”
In this case the school intervened before things could get totally out of hand. The schools mediator Denisa Mikelová spoke to class members, to the girl herself and to the bullies to find out details.
“When I told the class something of what the girl confided, how she felt and how much she suffered, even the boys who bullied her were shocked. They had no idea how deeply hurt the girl was and how much harm they were doing. That was enough to stop it. But of course we brought in the parents as well.”
Not all schools are so expedient and in some institutions getting listened to and being believed and taken seriously can be a problem. That is why two years ago three high school students from Brno decided to set up a web page where the victims or witnesses can report bullying and get help. Over that time 1600 schools joined in the “Don’t Let it Pass” project and hundreds of calls for help appeared on the web; messages such as the one below.
“The boys all make fun of her because of her weight. Almost everyone is horrible to her. One girl in particular – she broke her glasses and pushed her around. I’ve seen her being nasty to other children as well. Before we had a teacher who knew how to stop this, but the one we have now does nothing, even when we tell her about it. We’re scared.”
The person calling for help needs to enter the name of the school where the bullying is taking place, the name of the victim and provide some details of the abuse. The respective message is sent directly to the school concerned and then it is up to the school’s management and staff how they go about resolving the problem. So far there have been over 4,000 messages. One of the co-authors of the web page Jan Sláma says it is usually a classmate of the victim who reports the bullying and in most cases girls rather than boys decide to help.
“Most of the incidents reported are bullying in its early stages -cases of kids being ridiculed and so on. But these things can quickly spiral and get out of hand. And we have had some serious cases of bullying reported as well - cases where the victim was considering suicide. We had a number of those.”
Even so not all schools are willing to sign up for the project, which would enable calls for help to be directed to them. Jan Sláma says he thinks they may fear bad publicity, a fear that he says is unwarranted because the statistics regarding bullying at individual schools remain private.
The School Ombudsman Ladislav Hrzál has welcomed the venture. He says it is never too early to take action and what starts out as a small slight can soon get out of hand. “Bullying is like a contagious disease, once it appears somewhere it has a tendency to spread” Hrzál says.
In its advanced version the web page offers the advice of a psychologist on the phone. The student project has proved immensely successful and is already being used in Slovakia, Poland, the US and South Africa.