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Compass articles inspires victim of bullying in Harbour Grace to speak out

I write in reponse to an article published in the Feb. 18, 2014 edition of The Compass headlined "Bullying problem in Harbour Grace, and a second article headlined "School no better, or worse, says Coombs," which appeared in the Feb. 25 edition.

As a former resident of Harbour Grace who went through the entire system, from kindergarten to Grade 12, nuns to brothers, girls then no-girls, I was not in the least surprised to hear the bullying problem continues.

Saddened, yes. But not surprised.

I endured the full 13 years as a victim, from Day 1 in kindergarten, when I was stabbed in the arm with a pencil by another five-year-old, until the final days of Grade 12, when another student decided to practice his WWF wrestling moves on me against my will.

And I wasn’t the only one. Everyday, victims marched into the doors to the slaughter: thrown into lockers, pushed down stairs, pounded in the hallways, belongings stolen or simply broken, jabs in class, obscene things written on their clothing, attacks in the bathroom. Ever present was the jailhouse-snitch rule: rat on someone and get beat worse.

Then there were the teachers who made things worse. The ones who participated, by singling out the victims for sarcastic or derisive comments in class. The ones who, while patrolling the hall, joined in the bullying — the most common way is this: victim is thrown into a bank of lockers by the bully; the teacher then punishes the victim for making noise in the hall. There’s the teachers who won’t act against the bully because the bully is an athlete and has a game/event coming up; and besides, athletes are just goofing around and the victim is a weirdo who deserves to be a target and, anyway, needs to toughen up.

Other teachers, I believe, simply chose not to see the bullying because, like the victims, they feel helpless to stop it.

And the bullying continues outside of the school walls: on the buses, on the walk home, during vacations. Once a victim gets marked they are labelled for life. The adults in the community follow the same rules as the teachers. The now-adult bullies who still live in the area still make snide comments to or about victims, and think everyone needs to lighten up or toughen up.

Don Coombs' response sums up what has always been the reaction in the area: There is no bullying problem.

As if denial makes it disappear.

Don, if a single person says they are bullied, then you have an incident. If many people say it, you have a problem. Period. It doesn’t matter how you compare to other schools. What matters is how St. Francis compares to a proper, just society. And the residents in your schools don’t feel they live in a proper, just society. They feel like they are living in a prison, with prison rules of survival. So, Don, your job is to fix it, not to deny it.

But there’s an even bigger problem here, that of community. What devastates victims is not the individual acts of bullies (the violent attacks, verbal assaults, constant abuse), it is the apathy of those around them. The lack of reaction by witnesses. The denial of the problem. The refusal of people to get involved, either by intervening at the time or by speaking out afterwards. Those who are bullied are re-victimized by all those who refuse to stand up for them. The victims do not feel part of any community: not at school, not on the street, not in the town. They are alienated by a society which doesn’t care if they are beaten and humiliated on a regular basis.

Apathy fosters the bullies. It teaches them that they can victimize others without real consequence. THEY are not shamed, punished, or cast out. They do not endure the humiliation of having no one to stand by them. Quite the opposite. They gain respect from their peers, social standing from having a tough reputation, and increased attention from teachers and others through the intervention process. They get to keep their standing as sports heroes, as popular kids, or as "normal." Victims creep down backstreets in fear, abandoned to their fates, while the bullies are accepted into society.

No wonder then that many victims cannot wait for the final day of high school, when parole has finally come through. They cannot wait to flee to a new home, away from the bullies, their collaborators, and their enablers. Away from the community that rejected them for people who thrive on humiliation. The victims leave, never to return. The bullies remain. Such has been the case for at least 40 years, based on the comments these articles have received and on my own experiences.

So ask yourself this:

If for 40 years — nearly three generations — the Harbour Grace/Carbonear area has driven out the victims while sustaining the bullies, what then is the foundation of your towns? Are you a society which simply accepts bullying? Or are you really a community of bullies?

Bullying is not just for teachers and principals and school councils to solve because it is not restricted to schools. It is a communal problem which requires a community solution. As long as bullies are tolerated by your society, and the victims alienated, you will not live in a just and fair society. You will inhabit a community of bullies.

— Jeff Rose-Martland describes himself as a citizen advocate. He writes from St. John’s.

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