School bullying leaves victims with unhealed trauma

By Quang Huong   May 3, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
For those who’ve been bullied at school, the experience itself is hurtful enough, but overcoming it is yet another difficult journey.

"People say that high school is supposed to be the best years of your life, but for me, it felt like hell," said Trang, 19, who lives in the northern province of Ha Giang.

She told VnExpress what she'd gone through as a teenager.

When she was in seventh grade, Trang, now a college student, was appointed one of the three monitors in her class.

Her role was to make sure the classroom would always be clean and neat.

To fulfill her task, Trang usually reminded her classmates, including the other two monitors, to clean up the classroom when it came to their shifts. For that, her classmates, especially the other two monitors, did not like her.

"They usually threw shade at me, using all the dirty words and even mentioned one or two bad things about my mother," she said.

After a while, her classmates started abusing her physically: They drew on her books, notebooks, and her desk. On several occasions, they threw chalk powder on her or splashed the water discarded after cleaning the board onto her.

Trang decided to tell her teacher.

But the teacher did not do anything about it apart from telling her bullies to stop what they were doing. The teacher did so publicly in front of the whole class.

Trang then found out that telling her teacher was possibly the worst mistake she could have made.

One time when she was riding a bicycle back home from school, her classmates stopped her halfway and beat her up.

"They told me if I ever told our teacher anything, they would beat me even worse."

After that afternoon, Trang said she was beaten up several more times, to the point her clothes were torn and her skin was scratched to bleed.

"I cannot remember exactly how many times they beat me up."

Sometimes, the other two monitors in the class also abused Trang.

One of the two monitors in her class is the daughter of the school’s principal.

He was aware of what other kids did to Trang but simply told her that it was just a prank by her friends and she shouldn’t take it too seriously.

"I was horrified when he told me so. I am afraid of my friends for one thing, but when the principal talked to me like that, I was worried he might expel me from school and therefore I didn't even dare tell my parents," Trang said, adding that all the friends that used to stand by her started to walk away for fear of the same fate.

"Those days, I would hide in a corner and cry by myself. I also avoided my parents when I was sad."

The latest data from the Ministry of Education and Training released in 2019 said that for every school year, there are around 1,600 violent incidents at school, which means five cases per day on average.

For every 5,200 students, at least one participates in a fight at school. For every 11,000 students, one is expelled from school for fighting.

In most cases, victims of school violence say they do not know how to protect themselves or do not know whom they should talk to, and that the violence only ends when they graduate or move to another school.

The ministry also reported that most of the reasons kids give for fighting at school are not significant. Sometimes it is only because one student "looked at the other the wrong way" or one student is more brilliant than the others, like in the case of Quynh in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa.

Quynh said that last year when she was in seventh grade, she bought a new pencil and used it in her class.

A girl sitting in front of her turned around and asked her: "Why would you use the same pencil as mine, you want to become me?"

"Just because we’re using the same pencil doesn’t mean I want to be like you," Quynh replied.

That girl, identified as L., was not happy with Quynh’s attitude and has been threatening Quynh at school ever since. She even slapped Quynh in the face.

As their feud developed, a close friend of Quynh tipped her off that L. wanted to beat her.

As advised by that close friend, Quynh should just let L. beat her and others would make a video of the whole scene so that they could have proof to report L. later.

The day L. beat Quynh, as many as 20 students gathered to watch and none of them did anything about it.

Then Quynh gave the video of the incident to her teacher, hoping that L. would be punished.

But the teacher told Quynh to delete the video and not to tell anyone about what had happened to protect the school’s image. As for L., she only received a small reprimand from the teacher.

"I live with my uncle and grandparents as my parents live in the south to work. My uncle met with my teacher and talked about me getting beaten up in class but the teacher did not want to take it seriously."

"I’m really disappointed in her [the teacher]. The whole thing about getting beaten in class has caused me to feel pain both physically and mentally," said Quynh.

Now an 8th grader, Quynh said she has no friends and barely talks or smiles at school. Hanging out with her classmates is the last thing in the world she’d ever think of doing.

Quynh and Trang are only two of Vietnam’s many cases of school violence, which has been happening at a higher frequency over the last few years.

A schoolboy lies on his desk at a school in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

A schoolboy lies on his desk at a school in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

On April 4, a 6th grader in the central town of Hue was killed after scuffling with a friend at school during break time. That same day, 20 students at a middle school in the northern Phu Tho Province were suspended after they teamed up to beat a 7th grader at school to the point he had to be hospitalized.

On April 7, a 9th grader was stabbed to death at school in central Quang Tri Province after he and a male classmate got caught up in a fight.

More than a week ago, 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.

Parents’ involvement?

The problem has affected not just the victims, but also their families.

Vu Thi Thanh Thuy, 55, in the northern Hai Phong City, said she has not been able to come to terms with what happened to her son when he was a sixth grader.

"He usually seemed sad and once told his close friend that he does not want to come to class," she said.

"One night he cried as his neck was hurt. Only then did he tell me that his classmate had beaten him up and strangled him the previous day. And that was not the first and only time that classmate assaulted him, but he always hid those stories from me," said Thuy.

"Seeing the red marks around his neck and listening to him telling the entire story, I was so furious that I went to school the next day and slapped that kid in his face, even after my husband had tried to talk me out of it," she said.

Thuy said what she did "scared the teacher off" so the school organized a meeting between her with the parents of the bully.

His parents apologized to Thuy and her son but admitted that they could not manage their own son, whom they described as rude and hard to discipline.

After that meeting, the solution of the school, as requested by Thuy, was to keep her son away from the bully around the clock.

Now, her son is in 11th grade, Thuy learned that the bully had moved into his class and gathered his own gang at school to make sure her son is isolated. Now her son is afraid of his mother making a scene again, so he keeps everything from her.

As tears go by

Dao Le Hoa An, HCMC-based director of the Center for Psychology Sciences Application and Career Guidance, said that people have so far focused more on physical damage when it comes to school violence and have paid less attention to emotional damage.

But emotional wounds, he said, if not shared, understood and healed, could follow the victims for the rest of their lives.

This has so far been the case for some of the characters in our story as time goes by.

Trang has become a university sophomore, but she’s far from ok.

"I sometimes have nightmares about those days when I was bullied and beaten, and sweat when I wake up," she said.

Psychological expert Tran Kim Thanh, director of the HCMC-based Happiness Coaching Center, said it is not easy for parents to know whether their children have been bullied at school because they are either too scared to tell anyone or doubt that their parents could do anything to change the situation.

She suggested that the first thing parents should do in any case is to stay calm and study the problem to see who the bully is and why they did what they did. After that, parents should cooperate with the school to manage the situation.

She also advised parents to communicate with their children frequently to gain their trust, and prepare their children so that they could notice the signs of troubled kids and stay away from them.

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