THE problem of bullying is a challenge to students, educators and parents throughout Jamaica, with children taking advantage of their usually smaller, weaker peers from as early as age six, some stakeholders say.
Bullying takes a number of forms; the common ones include:
* the extortion of money from victims;
* sending victims on errands;
* verbal abuse, and, in some of the worst cases,
* physical violence.
However, this scourge can be tackled effectively by parents monitoring the behaviour of their children and communicating the problem firmly and with care.
"Bullying is pretty bad right now because the school system is a reflection of the society. Children bring what they learn in the society to school," said Marcia McCausland-Wilson, president of the National Parent-Teachers Association of Jamaica.
Extortion of lunch money starts early in many schools, even from grade one, McCausland-Wilson said, and this may continue through to the high school level.
Bullies often carry knives and other weapons into the primary schools to intimidate their victims.
Nadine Molloy, president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, said the practice of bullying goes through cycles in particular schools; sometimes it is very prevalent while it falls off in popularity at other times.
"I think it fluctuates. Just as how sometimes you get a group of students who are academically inclined and another time you get some who are not so inclined, sometime you get more or fewer students with maladaptive behaviour, depending on what is happening in the community and the society," she told Career & Education.
In Molloy's experience, bullying rears its ugly head at the beginning and end of the school term rather than in the middle of the term.
"Economics plays a part in it also. I find it's when students need money the most that they shake down other students," she noted.
Molloy, who is on leave as principal of Buff Bay High in Portland, deals with bullies by targeting the leader of such groups.
"It's when you are able to deal effectively with a ringleader that this behaviour declines for a while," she said.
Also, students who are focused on school work or co-curricula activities don't usually resort to harassing other students, she as found.
Bullies tend to target children who seem to have no visible adult in their lives, that is their parents or guardians are never seen at school, and therefore it is unlikely that the behaviour will be reported.
McCausland-Wilson said building a good relationship with your child and his/her teacher can prevent your child from being a victim.
There is a temptation for parents to go to schools to confront their child's bully, but McCousland-Wilson suggests a more gentle approach.
"There was a boy who had taken set on my son when he was in primary school," she related. "I went to the school and I just hugged him (the bully) and said 'why you keep troubling my son?' You know he couldn't answer. Immediately the bullying stopped and even now he calls me 'Auntie Marcia'," she said.
McCausland-Wilson added that very often some children pick on others because they (the victims) are a little different; they may come from a different community or background.
Molloy advises teachers to keep abreast of new technologies and behavioural problems to ensure bullies are in line with school rules. Cyber-bullying is relatively new to Jamaica, but she called on teachers and parents to make themselves aware of new ways of communicating using social networking sites, such as Facebook.
"There has to be some form of punishment. Some don't think so but punishment has its place," she said.
Cyber-bullying has been defined as the use of the Internet, cellphones or other devices to send information intended to hurt, intimidate or embarrass another person.
In some countries, children have been known to post embarrasing pictures about their peers, spread false rumours about them engaging in sex, and create websites to vote for the 'ugliest and fattest kids in school', for example.
The extent of the problem in Jamaica is not clear. However, in at least one Corporate Area high school, parents were recently told of the practice and advised to take steps to monitor their children's use of the Internet.
Marcia Whynn, guidance counsellor at North Street Primary, said she was not aware of bullying at her school, which is a smaller institution in downtown Kingston. However, she said the best way to address bullying is to call in the parents or guardian of the bully to help determine if there are problems at home.