Schools in Hong Kong must stand up to bullying or risk being enablers of such behaviour
Alice Wu says the way a seven-year-old boy’s repeated complaints about being bullied in school ended with him needing surgery underlines how adults failed him
Results from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey, announced just last week, put Hong Kong students in third place in the world in collaborative problem-solving. This was followed by a round of very predictable self-congratulatory pats on the back that included a statement from the Education Bureau saying it was “pleased to learn” of the students’ “outstanding performance”, which “validates that Hong Kong education is heading in the right direction”.
Contrast that with the bureau’s eerie silence when the Pisa results on student well-being were released. In April, Pisa found that our 15-year-olds came third from bottom in life satisfaction. Studies in Hong Kong consistently point to the heavy price of our academic excellence: our students are stressed, depressed, and bullied.
Earlier this year, a video clip surfaced that showed disturbing evidence of on-campus hazing: a student of one of our top universities used his genitals to slap the head of another male student, who was pinned down by at least two others. Many people were outraged. But, unless something is done about it, we are doomed to be outraged again and again.
Bullying starts young. Young bullies will keep bullying if they are not stopped, while victims who suffer in silence sometimes become bullies themselves. Both the bully and the victim suffer. Meanwhile, bystanders learn to fear retribution and passively accept bullying.
The latest case of a Primary One student who had to have a pencil-tip eraser surgically removed from his ear canal is shocking. We know that children can be mean and cruel, of course, but the school’s handling of the alleged bullying clearly fell short.
The child’s mother had lodged six separate complaints since the beginning of the school year, with the boy saying he had been poked in the eye and slapped in the face. The school involved looked into the matter, verified some of the complaints but concluded that there was no evidence of the eraser being placed by another child.
While the school could not be faulted just because it did not find evidence of wrongdoing, it is shocking that the headmistress excused the school from acting on initial complaints because of “more urgent matters”. Such inaction makes the adults hurtful bystanders – and thus active enablers of bullying behaviour.
The father of another pupil told the media that his daughter’s teacher had questioned the boy’s claim of being bullied. The teacher told the class: “Do you think he could have kept silent for days if the eraser was really stuck in his ear?”
If true, then the teacher would have added to the bullying by ridiculing the victim.
Our education minister has pledged to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach when handling the incident. Yet, he also stressed that the bureau has guidelines and training for schools and teachers on such matters, which suggests his “zero tolerance” approach will only go so far.
In a study conducted by a local university in 2010, 70.8 per cent of secondary students surveyed reported being victims of violent bullying by peers. Add to that the equally vicious cyberbullying and the picture is grim.
How many more years are our schools going to be allowed to be complicit in producing aggressors and predators before real action is taken? A children’s commission must be given the authority and trust to do right by our children, to be their voice when they can’t speak for themselves, and to be critical when society – including policymakers – fails them.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA