Ms. J is a mother of two kids, one of which had recently been involved in a terrible group assault at school. While this situation would be extremely upsetting for any parent, Ms. J has a really insightful way of looking at it which has helped both herself and her son get through the ordeal. With a background in sociology, she really seems to understand many of the underlying factors that played a role in the behaviour of everyone involved.

The Attack

Her son Rex is in grade 5, loves Transformers, Star Wars and likes to make people laugh. One day, he was attacked on the playground after a minor incident with one boy that happened that morning. Later in the day the other boy recruited about six others to attack, hold down and beat up her son. He had to go to the hospital and suffered a concussion and bloody nose.

This wasn’t light roughhousing. There were times where he was hit in the neck or head causing him to hear nothing but high pitched squealing for a while, and causing his vision to blur. It’s sort of like being knocked half unconscious as your brain is slammed against the inside of your skull. And kid’s brains aren’t done developing yet.

In dealing with the trauma, Rex is very lucky to have an exceptionally strong support network of family and friends to talk to and confide in. He uses his sense of humour to redirect some of the pain, but ultimately must confront it to fully move beyond it. This is why having a support network to talk to is so important.

The School’s Response

It took the teachers a long time to actually become aware of the attack because nobody went to go get help. Once they were, they seemed slow to alert the parents. Not only that, they didn’t really seem to take Rex’s health and wellbeing as seriously as they should have. Rather than being proactive with checking him out, they asked HIM if they could call 911 (as if the adults didn’t know?), Being scared and probably in shock he said he was ‘fine’. But that wasn’t true as a visit to the hospital would later uncover.

This is a big opportunity for learning and improvement – when dealing with physical assault at school it must be taken extremely seriously to not only safeguard the health of the children involved, but also to prevent it from happening again. When a fight occurs, depending on what happens another fight could happen in retaliation or continuation of the first. I certainly hope the school has taken extensive notes for the official record for everyone involved – this is critical.

What’s even more concerning is that the school didn’t really seem too concerned until later when many of the other children at school who were traumatized by what they saw told their parents who then begun to call and pay visits to the school voicing their concerns.

Why it Happened

It seems that the kid that instigated this attack had some issues with jealousy stemming from his insecurity regarding his own self-worth. The child often brags about money his parents have and monetary measures of value. He may have felt threatened by Rex because his family also does well for themselves, and it may show through the clothes he wears or the car his parents drive. Also, Rex’s relative popularity could have made the other boy insecure. When kids are taught that money and materialism is of higher value and importance than a person’s individual character, problems like this can arrive because the child feels insecure and anxious about their own value as perceived by others. Kids need to be educated about different measures of personal value, inner strength, identity and character earlier. This can build essential interpersonal skills such as empathy, compassion, understanding, and ways to manage emotional responses in themselves.

To make things more complicated, kids are exposed to all kinds of media on TV and the internet. In addition to advertising, kids are also quite influenced by peers on social media. These so called “influencers” are indeed influential, but is it a positive influence? Think about a young child who makes tens of millions of dollars a year creating videos about unboxing and opening toys. This creates a direct association with kids who watch this day in and day out that happiness, success, money and value is tied to how many things you have. When the kids don’t have those things, they start to become insecure and anxious. Eventually, this can lead to chronic problems with anxiety and depression down the road. Not to say social media is bad, but it’s a tool which can be dangerous or can be powerful depending on how it’s used.

To add ANOTHER layer of complexity, some parents are then measuring their own self-worth in part based on the perceived ‘success’ of their children which further compounds and reinforces the idea that popularity or status is of utmost importance in life. Ms. J even went so far as to say she thinks some parents see their kids as fashionable ‘accessories’.

What is Value?

The value a lot of people ascribe to themselves and things seems to only be surface-level much of the time. It would be productive to ask oneself why a particular accomplishment or thing has value. It is driven by vanity and ego, where the appearance of what a thing looks like is the value? Or is it more important what that thing represents below the surface, that isn’t outwardly apparent? Take any example, such as whether a piece of paper with your name on it saying you have a degree has value, or whether your years of struggle and hard work achieving that designation has developed you as an individual who now embodies that value within yourself? It’s not surprising to know that there are places that will sell you a piece of paper with your name on it, if you only do six months of work and pay them a lot of money. A lot of people see this as having tremendous value and pay the money for a relatively ‘empty’ piece of paper.

Anti-Bullying Week

The week after this event happened was the school’s annual bullying awareness week. However it seems like what they teach is mostly about awareness, focusing on a DEBUG plan that even kids think is woefully inadequate to deal with real issues that happen with bullying at school. You can tell a kid to take certain steps or do certain things, but in a moment of intense emotions and fear this sort of training will likely go out the window. Not to mention that most kids are quite scared about “getting called to the office” or “getting in trouble”, so they would likely avoid taking actions in a situation that they know is going to lead to trouble. It’s not until a child really internalizes and practices ways of managing their own emotions and feelings that they’re better equipped to handle such situations. This doesn’t seem to be a focus in schools.

Martial Arts Training

Rex has been enrolled in a martial arts program since he was four years old. Despite what most people think, the biggest benefit of training isn’t necessarily in the way a person can learn to physically defend during an attack. It is important to have the tools to be able to survive such a situation. However, another huge value is developing resilience, grit, inner strength and confidence – the ability to manage through a situation and deal with the associated emotions. This is something that can be used in many everyday situations throughout life, not just in physical fights. Academic learning can teach facts and theories, but physical learning through martial arts provokes a direct confrontation with one’s own emotions. The learning that comes from this can’t really be taught any other way. A virtue that is taught in martial arts is compassion – and with this also empathy. Rex likely had the ability to fight back more than he did, but he chose not to. One of the reasons was that he was afraid of two things: 1. That he would hurt someone and 2: That he would get in trouble and look bad. This points to a very sensitive and respectful individual – but it’s also quite confusing when you are faced with the choice to defend yourself vs potentially harming someone else. It’s a struggle that some people find hard to resolve.

What about the Police?

Ms. J decided not to call the police and this may sound surprising to some. While I certainly think it was warranted to involve them, there are always pros and cons to actions and it’s responsible to weigh them. With kids at this young an age, they are likely acting out based on an inability to deal with their own emotions, and this is probably rooted in fear and anger. Police intervention would likely increase the kid’s level of fear and therefore anger as well. This could exacerbate the situation. Simple punishment may not deter behaviour and might actually fuel it. We have to be careful about how to handle this – being very firm and ensuring it doesn’t happen again, teaching a lesson, and at the same time trying to stay away from putting more fear and anger into the kids. Otherwise, it becomes a vicious cycle. Not only that, the police intervention would likely upset the kid’s parents, and their parents negative mood could also rub off on the kids.

By choosing not to pursue more severe punishment, Ms. J has actually given herself all the power in the situation. She is not giving the other kids and their parents an outlet to release their anger and frustration – and then they are left to have to deal with it on their own. If the school could provide some sort of support for the offending kids (a councillor for example), there’s a better chance they will improve their behaviour in the long run. Being forced to confront what they did, they have to experience and feel the feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and maybe even empathy for the harm they caused. But, if you give them a fight, then they can simply ignore those emotions and focus on anger.

Recommendations for Schools

Just by looking at evidence and being pragmatic it’s clear that the anti-bullying initiatives aren’t really working all that well. Bullying is still happening everywhere and will continue to. Kids are saying the DEBUG plan they are taught doesn’t really work. It may be time to start having more conversations with the kids themselves, and facilitate conversations between the kids to uncover additional insight, share feelings and learn that way. Adults like to think they know better, but maybe not in all circumstances. We do forget what it’s really like to be a kid sometimes because we’ve matured and become experienced through everything that’s happened in our lives which changes the lens through which we view the world.

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