School bullying haunts victims decades later

By Phan Duong   May 21, 2023 | 02:44 am PT
School bullying haunts victims decades later
Phuong Mai is still melancholic to this day due to due to her traumatic childhood. Photo courtesy of Mai
Huynh Tien still breaks out in a cold sweat whenever she sees a pith helmet.

She shivers to remember the time a group of boys tore off her clothes and beat her with a helmet during her Hanoi school’s military training sessions.

Tien, now a transgender woman, said she was picked on as a student because, according to her bullies, she "looked like a pansy" before her transition.

During her elementary years in Soc Son District, a group of kids near Tien’s school often used ropes to trip her bicycle and cause her to crash. One time, they even tied her up and beat her with sticks.

"I could only cry," Tien said. "I couldn’t even tell my parents when I went home."

When she was in 6th grade, Tien was beat up on her way to a birthday party. She then became scared of going anywhere alone.

Starting high school should have meant a new place and new friends, but Tien was still bullied by total strangers because she was, in their words, an "eyesore".

On the first day of her school’s mandatory military training, Tien was confronted by a group of boys when she was just sitting on a bench.

"They cornered me, molested me, then tore off my clothes. They used pith helmets to hit me repeatedly. I couldn’t do anything", Tien remembered.

Leaving Tien beaten on the ground, the bullies walked off and one said: "If you’re a man, then you have to look like a man."

Tien became absent from school for days. Her teacher only found out about the incident two months later. An "investigation" into the group of bullies proved fruitless, and Tien was left traumatized at the sight of pith helmets until now.

Throughout her school days, transgender woman Huynh Tien was physically and mentally abused. Photo courtesy of Tien

Throughout her school days, transgender woman Huynh Tien was physically and mentally abused. Photo courtesy of Tien

The U.N. has estimated that 246 million students face abuse every year. In Vietnam, statistics provided by the Ministry of Education & Training count 1,600 annual cases of student fights.

But school psychologist Dr. Hoang Trung Hoc from the National Academy of Education Management said this statistic does not reflect the true reality, because school violence exists in many forms and cannot be fully documented.

There are two common types of violence – physical and mental abuse. In recent years, the level of traumatic physical violence in Vietnam has increased.

Abuse often leaves victims with trauma, according to Dr. Hoc.

Victims who suffer long-term abuse may avoid going to school, and they often develop depression, anxiety, and long-term mental damage. Even more concerning, repeated abuse can lead to a pattern in both abusers and victims. The victim will repeat the violence inflicted upon them onto others, and even pass it on to future generations.

"An abused child may become an abusive parent," said Dr. Hoc.

"Parents who were abused when they were young might repeat this violence on their children for the sake of discipline."

‘Pain lasts the longest’

Even though it has been 20 years, the pain of being bullied as a child still haunts Nguyen Khanh Ly, a 32-year-old living in Long Bien, Hanoi.

When Ly was in 6th grade, her class had a group of bullies made up of three male delinquents and two rich female students.

They often mocked Ly’s appearance, clothes, and poorer financial background, even going so far as to tell others not to play with her. "Painful things last the longest," said Ly as she recalled more traumatic events.

She said she often got beat up and had her clothes drawn on with markers.

"The reason for this was because my homeroom teacher put me in charge of writing names into the school register," said Ly. "And I was also my Literature teacher’s favorite."

This situation continued for years. At times, each step through the school gate felt like a step into hell for Ly.

When she was in 7th grade, everyone was wearing shoes or boots during the winter, but Ly still wore only sandals.

The bullies tripped her, broke her sandals and then played "keep-away" with them as though they were footballs.

She considered suicide but stopped herself by thinking of her parents and siblings. She asked her homeroom teacher to change classes, but she was denied. "I spent the entire day crying," Ly remembered.

Her mom was finally made aware of Ly’s suffering after seeing her puffy, red eyes that same evening. The next day, Ly’s mother visited the school to talk with administrators and then she met the parents of the bully group’s leader at their home.

After that day, Ly’s situation got better.

Get by with a little help

With help from her mom and friends, Phuong Mai, a 35-year-old-art teacher from Thai Binh, was able to withstand some of her worst days at school.

Burdened with a limp from a young age, Mai’s hellish moments span from 1st grade to 2nd grade, when a friend mimicked her limp in front of the whole class just for fun.

"Only a few friends stuck by my side, the rest of the class never bothered playing with me," she said.

Dr. Hoang Trung Hoc said school violence can leave long-lasting consequences for both victims and abusers. Normally, even the abusers themselves also suffer from mental health issues. Studies point out that even though only 5% of students have mental health problems, 80% of school violence cases are perpetrated by students in this group.

Research also shows that criminals often develop anti-social behavior during their school years.

Removing school violence entirely is impossible, according to Dr. Hoc. But it is school managers' and educators’ jobs to promote a safe and healthy learning environment, via observations by both parents and teachers, especially homeroom teachers, he said.

Experts point out that both love and respect must come hand in hand with discipline. Without discipline, schools cannot teach anything nor stop violence.

"I sincerely hope that Vietnamese schools start caring more about preventing school violence," said Dr. Hoc. "And [they should also provide] more mental support [to students], with an emphasis on having psychologists that can help take care of student’s mental problems."

These days, Khanh Ly has lost all of her connections with teachers and friends from her school years.

"Everyone dreams about going back to their more innocent time, while I’d rather be dead than reliving those moments", she said.

In Huynh Tien’s case, 12 years of abuse finally ended on her last day as a student. On her last day at school, her biggest bully sent her an apology message.

"At that moment [when things at school changed], I knew that even if life becomes more difficult, I still have this place to return to," she said.

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