Urgent action needed to tackle Dubai school bullying problem

Bullying must be addressed says report that shows 40 per cent of pupils have punched, kicked or slapped a classmate.

Nargish Khambatta, principal at Gems Modern Academy. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // Schools are being urged to introduce comprehensive anti-violence programmes after a study revealed that four in 10 primary and secondary pupils kick, punch, slap or use other physical force on their peers.

The study of more than 1,000 pupils in Dubai also showed that almost half of school-age children had witnessed some form of pupil-on-pupil violence. It highlighted many cases of persistent bullying, with some pupils admitting to being beaten more than three times in a month.

“There is a need to seriously address violence as an important health issue in our schools given its magnitude,” said the co-authors of the study.

“For violence interventions to be effective it must focus beyond the violent child and the victim to include peers, school staff, parents and the community.”

Dr Samineh Shaheem, assistant professor of psychology at Hult University in Dubai, said schools should be better equipped to deal with cases of violence and bullying given the high prevalence of both.

“At the moment, there is not a consistent approach – some ignore, some show empathy and compassion while others contact parents,” said Dr Shaheem, who was not involved in the study. “This creates a situation of uncertainty, randomness and insecurity among our children.”

She said a consistent process for dealing with various types of bullying and aggression needed to be “communicated to and adopted by all” schools in accordance with one framework.

She added: “This way, educators know what to do and how to respond when incidents occur.”

The short-term mental health effects of school violence include depression, anxiety that can become debilitating, school phobia, low self-esteem, withdrawal, social isolation, and plummeting academic performance.

“Too many people look at bullying as ‘something all kids do’ or even as a rite of passage,” said Beth Ann Rupp, an educational consultant working in Abu Dhabi, who said the results were “disturbing but not surprising”.

"It's neither of those things," said Ms Rupp, co-author of The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don't Play Sports Survive Boyhood and Bullying.

“In its worst form, it is an exploitive expression of power with the intent to hurt, shame, or otherwise diminish another human being.”

Global and local trends, she said, show children and teenagers are becoming more accustomed to seeing acts of violence in common culture and can mirror these actions against one another in school, on the school bus, and in the locker rooms.

While anti-violence measures in schools could work to stop a bully’s behaviour, more is needed to address the root of the problem, said Ms Rupp, of EduEval, a consultancy in Dubai.

“Bullying is not only a behaviour problem; it is can be a moral problem,” she said. It can be a desperate need for control, an unwillingness to yield to anyone perceived as inferior, or from a lack of empathy.

“This is so much bigger than just behaviour, and because of that, the solution requires a different plan and different remedial strategies,” she said.

Nargish Khambatta, principal at Gems Modern Academy, thought the results were “very surprising” and said there should be a clear distinction between “horsing around and playing a bit roughly” and serious bullying.

“The difference between the two is sometimes blurred,” she said. “Serious bullying should be dealt with firmly and there should be zero tolerance to it.”

A good in-house counsellor should be one of the primary measures in preventing school violence, she said.

“Students carry a lot of emotional baggage and it is essential to understand why they are behaving the way they do. Effective counselling can help provide excellent intervention strategies.”


More on bullying:

Cost of treating injured private schoolchildren in Dubai tops Dh900,000 a year

Parents should get to know children