•Factors behind cultism, bullying in schools
•Why they cover up crimes
•Sylvester’s class teacher should have spotted deeper distress signs
By Prisca Sam-Duru
Mrs Tochi Opara is the author of ‘21st Century Parenting’ and a member of the Nigerian Bar Association and Associate member of the Standing Committee of Mediation Advocates, ASCMA, UK.
In this interview, she reveals factors fuelling violence in Nigerian schools, against the backdrop of the 12-year-old student of Dowen College, Sylvester Oromoni, allegedly murdered in school. She also exposes why schools cover up crimes and, much more. Excerpts.
When would you say bullying began in our Primary and Secondary schools?
Bullying as means of dominating junior or younger students has been a long existing phenomenon prior to the incident that occurred recently in a Lagos-based boarding school. I would not say it is normal because that will mean it is a regular way of living the school life but the incidents do pop up here and there ranging from taunting, gang ups, aggression, physical punishments etc.
The perpetrators operated mainly out of the school authorities’ radar and were also not very brazen in their modus operandi.
The use of the GSM telephony and internet were not widespread too, so the phenomenon did not gain much mainstream spotlight. So oftentimes, they were localised and contained. Not so today. Students are more daring and disposed to heightened vices due to ready access to tools with which they can cause grievous pain, injury and in extreme cases, death.
So how did we get to this height of violence?
Well, the contributory factors are many and varied. I will start from what I call Conditioning.
The psycho-emotional atmosphere in which a child is raised has significant consequences on personality, character and life choices. For instance, a child that grows up in an aggressive environment will manifest the same trait towards peers and weaker children. Same goes in a family where parents show aggression towards each other, towards the children, domestic staff, and children towards children. The children replicate what they see rather than do what they are told. Parents therefore must be good role models not just instructors.
You also have the phenomenon of Popularity Culture. Gangs always arise in schools and are deemed rulers of the roost. Some children gain popularity or acceptance into some of these gangs by giving off a “tough guy” image by bullying others and enjoy elevated statuses. So, the fear of such students/gangs is the beginning of wisdom. They dominate the environment and force allegiance from frightened weaker students. And to enjoy protection, the weaker ones may be forced to go through some violent rites of initiation.
It is also established by research that some parenting styles dispose children to bullish tendencies. For instance, the permissive and neglectful parenting styles as well as the disengaged parenting style. The one common negative trend in all the three styles is that children brought up under those circumstances have poor social and relational skills. They are also not strong on empathy. To gain attention they can resort to excesses such as bullying. I have discussed these trends at length in my book, ‘21st Century Parenting’.
Immaturity may also be a causative factor in bullying. At this tender age laden with varied emotions and heightened hormonal changes, young people are still experimenting and figuring things out without the capacity to think through the far-reaching consequences of their choices and actions. The rational part of the adolescent brain does not fully develop till into the twenties. So, you find out that poor quality decisions are rife within this growth belt.
Which promotes bullying, boarding or day school and do you think school administrators have performed their tasks very well?
Bullying is rampant in schools both boarding and day schools. Schools are controlled environments with an admixture of differing age brackets, social backgrounds, diverse psychological make up etc. Authority among the student body is stratified. So, some students wield authority in both lawful and unlawful ways. Administrators are usually aware of the dynamics of this subculture and somehow expect its expressions within the community. The difference is in how the school administration handles “the power” when used in unwholesome ways.
So, you discover that most schools espouse the ‘zero tolerance’ policy to bullying at least on paper. The enforcement however is where the true test of willpower to enforce the policy lies. While some have a strict liability disposition, others pay lip service. Therefore, against this backdrop, I will not readily say that all schools hide bullying incidents. That would be a wide generalisation which does not reflect the reality.
So why do schools try to coverup each time such cases pop up?
The cover up comes as a result of a number of reasons. No negative publicity policy of many schools so as not to diminish image, peer ranking and enrolment. There is that competition to look attractive to would be students. So, any dent to that image is squashed.
There is also the quagmire of what to do when the bully is a child of the “ rich or influential”. The expectation of leveraging the connection with such rich or influential person colours the will to take decisive action against the offending child. So, the tendency is to hide such an infraction and offending. Worst case scenario a slap on the wrist sanction just to assuage punitive expectations. A case of different standards for different students.
The reverence culture also plays a part. Most proprietors of private schools enjoy larger than life images within their schools. The reverence accorded them will not allow a hapless staff stick out his or her neck and be a whistle-blower for any perceived wrongdoings in such a school especially bullying activity. The reprisal that will follow such an act can only be imagined. So, an atmosphere of secrecy prevails.
Now, what’s your view on Sylvester Oromoni’s case, was it carelessness or complicity?
I believe a couple of factors played out here. The internal structures for close supervision of teens living in a closed community was inadequate and lax. Its activation system was equally poor. There was a gap between the time of incidents and the response system of the school. Crisis management strategy was equally poor. Second, complicity may also have been a factor since information available from the public domain have controverted the official story line.
My suspicion therefore would be that an attempt was made to burnish the image of the school as being on top of the saga and having taken all necessary steps. Unfortunately, this has since unravelled with each unfolding detail.
Sylvester’s class teacher I believe had a limited understanding of his role. He should have spotted the deeper signs of distress he was going through and robustly activated the school administration’s response system.
Why do bullied children obey the oppressors by keeping quiet rather than confiding in their parents. Is this evidence of a flawed parent-child communication?
As curious as this scenario may be, let us not forget that bullying thrives on silence!
A bully instils fear and controls the victim by constant threat of more harm for daring to disclose. Same tactics employed by molesters. This ever-present fear and trepidation of reprisal which often happens out of sight, keeps the victim from opening up to would be helpers.
An open and unfettered communication line between parents and their children cannot be over emphasised. Every savvy twenty first century parent must have top notch communications skills in order to be effective in the lives of their children. If parents prepare their children adequately and in advance about the possibilities of bullying in their school environments and what steps to take if it happens, no amount of intimidation can make such children “suffer in silence”. It is instructive that Sylvester only divulged his horrendous ordeals at his dying moment. This ought not to be and should be a learning and growth opportunity for everyone.
How do we stem this devastating tide that is enveloping us?
To curb bullying, I will say to parents and caregivers; do not raise a bully. Wittingly and unwittingly. Parental persona, growth environment, parenting styles all count. Make necessary adjustments today.Rethink your child’s exposure to violent entertainment. These dehumanise and render children insensitive to pain and suffering. Teach empathy. Self-entitlement and an elevated sense of worth, make children view themselves as being of a higher order than their peers. So, they don’t treat others badly.
Low self-esteem also needs to be addressed as it disposes children to bullying to gain control elsewhere – the need to capture territory and feel a sense of worth.
Could boarding system be the problem? Shouldn’t we just close them down for now since it appears administrators are not playing their role of protecting students?
By all means no! It is sad reading so many comments and generalisations claiming that the boarding systems promote bullying. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Rather, it is the quality of students sent into the halls and the management system that we should focus on; not the concept. Like in the IT parlance; garbage in garbage out.
But then, a school that cannot put proper structures,systems in place to run a boarding facility efficiently should not dare to engage in one.
Parents need also understand that some of their expectations that boarding schools will do what they have failed to do as parents is unreasonable and unattainable. The primal place of teaching a child is the home. Dumping children in boarding houses without proper parenting foundation is reprehensible. That is part of what has led to the Sylvester saga. His tormentors obviously have personality issues.
What major role does government need to play to curb rising wave of violence in schools?
Government has the oversight function over schools and so, should step up its inspectorate duties.
Many things are being glossed over or swept under the carpet. Substandard facilities and lack of structure in boarding schools will continue to expose children to unnecessary hazards. Life is precious and needs to be protected.Let the change begin today.
Someone suggested parents should be punished for their children’s bullying-related crimes; with your background in Law, what penalty do you propose for child bullies?
At this stage in life remedial and rehabilitative measures work better. Our criminal justice and penal system are very low on rehabilitation. Because what happened is grievous (but all the elements of the offence must be proved in a court of law), the juvenile justice system will be the route. Parents cannot be held accountable in this matter; they didn’t coach and supervise the bullying activities.
There is no nexus between parental action and the action of the bullies.The judge may choose to make a passing reference on the parenting of the children but no offence can be attributed. Rather, the school represented by the Principal may be charged for negligence. They failed to adequately protect Sylvester. Evil act occurred in an environment that is under their control.