School bullying a behavior taught by society

By Thanh Hang, Duong Tam   May 14, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
School bullying a behavior taught by society
A still from a video posted online shows a sixth-grader beating her classmate at a school in Vinh Long Province in southern Vietnam, March 7, 2023.
Hoang Thao, 27, said that when she was in ninth grade she used to hate one of her classmates just because she "had a mole right next to her mouth, which was an ugly thing to see."

Thao and her friends regularly beat up the girl with the mole.

"It was far from just some prank and having fun. We beat her for real, we slapped her very hard," said Thao from Hanoi.

"Sometimes we beat her outside the school and sometimes we did it in the restroom."

The girl was not physically strong and she often took the abuse in silence. There was one time when she told the teacher, and another time Thao and her friends were caught red-handed while beating the girl. But in each case, Thao and her group easily got away with it because Thao’s mother was the head of the school’s parents council.

Thao and her friends only left the girl alone once they "got bored of her" and found themselves a new victim to harass.

Like Thao, some school bulliers admitted that their victims' "irritating" looks were just an "excuse" for their bullying. She said that she actually did not know or understand the real reasons for her agitation and rage.

According to the Ministry of Education and Training, there were around 1,600 violent incidents at Vietnamese schools in 2019, which means five cases per day on average. The ministry estimated that around 7,100 students were involved in school violence last year.

But the actual figures could be much more than that as those statistics only count big fights that were made public.

Many shades of bullying

Bullying means intentional and repeated actions that harm others, said Dr. Khuc Nang Toan from the Department of Educational Psychology at the Hanoi National University of Education (HNUE).

It is expressed in different forms rather than just physical violence.

It could be insulting, manipulating, isolating or defaming others, by either words verbally or content posted online, he said.

Experts believe there are four main causes of school bullying.

The first is the power dynamics, which means relationships in which one student has socially-formative power over another.

Toan said students with higher social stature often try to express their strength and authority by pressuring others. Sometimes students from dysfunctional families become bullies in order to gain the power they do not have at home, or to mask their pain and suffering, according to the doctor.

The second cause is "socialization," said Dr. Vu Thu Trang, another lecturer at HNUE’s Department of Educational Psychology.

She said school bullying is not a behavior that students are born with, it is something they learn from others. For example, children might have seen their parents using violence to make them obey, or they have seen their classmates bullying each other.

Trang said that what "makes it sad" is that students see those actions as the way to solve problems effectively, and they reapply it to those who are weaker than they are.

"This process is similar to the spread of a virus, it transfers from one student to another and it mutates, causing school bullying to spread at a rapid and difficult-to-control rate," she said.

Behavioral and emotional reinforcement is the third cause of school bullying, said Dr. Toan from HNUE.

He said that bullying is not always intentional and sometimes it is spontaneously triggered by students who lose self-control. When students get used to seeing that bullying can help solve a problem or achieve a goal, they might resort to using it unconsciously without even thinking about it. Thus, the behavior is reinforced and repeated.

Huynh Thanh Phu, principal of Bui Thi Xuan High School in Ho Chi Minh City, said the fourth reason is that the current modes of school discipline are not enough of a deterrent, and therefore students are not afraid to repeat the behavior.

Under current Ministry of Education and Training regulations, when students violate rules, schools can only reprimand, warn, and suspend them for up to two weeks. Expulsion is no longer applied from 2020.

Meanwhile, many students continue to bully each other outside of school. Sometimes the behaviors are serious and fatalities have been recorded in more than a few cases.

Most recently, six high-school students in the northern province of Nam Dinh killed an 11th grade boy during a fight on May 9.

On April 4, a 6th grader in the central town of Hue was killed after he scuffled with a friend at school during break time. On April 7, a 9th grader was stabbed to death at school in the central Quang Tri Province after he and a male classmate got caught up in a fight. In late April, an eighth grader was admitted to hospital after she was beaten by six other students at a middle school in Hanoi’s Dong Anh District.

Bullying and fighting are now often videotaped by students and posted online.

A still from an online video shows an eight-grade girl is beatean by other students in a restroom of Gio Linh Secondary School in Quang Tri Province in central Vietnam, April 24, 2023.

A still from an online video shows an eight-grade girl is beatean by other students in a restroom of Gio Linh Secondary School in Quang Tri Province in central Vietnam, April 24, 2023.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Dang Quoc Thong, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Doan Thi Diem Middle School and High School in HCMC, said that students often record their bullying to get attention and even praise.

Bullying can create the illusion that the bullies are "cool" and should be respected, he said.

He continued to say that at their age, students like to imitate others, while these days, violent and shocking videos are all over social networks and gather a lot of attention and comments.

Toan said students who are bullied come to fear school, and their academic results will be affected.

Victims of school bullying often become socially awkward and anxious, fearful, and stressed. Being bullied also causes the victim to misbehave, often in the form of lying to their parents or stealing from them to buy snacks and gifts for the bullies, he said.

Particularly, videos of bullying put enormous pressure on victims in the form of public humiliation.

Late last month, the daughter of Quang Tri resident Hoang Van Dang, 43, was abused by a group of classmates who beat her with helmets and tore her shirt in the school restroom. A video clip of the incident was posted online.

Dang said that his daughter has now gone from a sociable person who often participated in extracurricular activities at school, to a girl who is now afraid to go to school, does not dare to go online and hides whenever she encounters strangers.

He is worried the video will haunt his daughter for the rest of her life, causing pain and sadness any time it comes up.

Over time

Trang from HNUE sees bullying as the foundation of an unhealthy way of solving problems in the future, making school bullies more prone to becoming more serious criminals later in life.

In addition, bullies often have only a few "friends," most of whom are members of the bullying group, and are shunned by everyone. So there are social consequences for bullies as well, she said.

Now an adult, Hoang Thao said she was "lucky."

In the days when Thao went around abusing other kids, social media was only a minor facet of society and not many people knew who she really was.

Thao said her victims were also lucky to not have any videos of her bullying posted online.

The girl previously mentioned who was the main victim of Thao and her bully group’s abuse has apparently overcome much of the trauma caused.

According to Thao, later in high-school, a few years after the bullying, the two girls became close friends once they were both more mature.

The friendship developed to the point where Thao was chosen as one of the bridesmaids at her former-victim’s wedding reception not long ago.

But Thao said that she herself has never really come to terms with her own bullying.

"More than ten years since we graduated from high school, I have never had the guts to apologize to her in a serious manner, or sincerely ask her how she overcame whatever I had done to her," she said.

"I could not open my mouth to say those words, I still feel guilty and ashamed."

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