Dave (not his real name) used to be a consistent honor pupil when he was still in kindergarten.  Then, the family moved to a city when his father became a supervisor of the company where he is working.

It was the middle of school year and Dave, now 8, had to be transferred to a new school, a few distant away from where they are living.  It was a totally different surrounding for Dave; new classmates, new teacher, and new friends. 

In the first few weeks, it was fine.  Then, something weird happened.  He felt sick in the morning.  His grades started to drop.  He had unexplained cuts or bruises.  Then, one afternoon, after arriving from school, he told his mother: “I don’t want to go to school anymore.”

Sarah was completely baffled.  When they were still in the province, Dave really liked going to school.  But now, he didn’t want to school which is just nearby.  She asked her son but he won’t say anything.

The mother instinct said there was really something wrong with her son.  No, it wasn’t about his son but something must have been done to him in order for him to be reclusive.  After doing some sleuth – asking Dave’s friends – she found out that her son was being bullied by one of his classmates, the son of the school principal.

Violence against children by their peers, in particular bullying, has received little attention in the Philippines, possibly due to the perception that bullying and fighting among children is part of school culture.  “Away bata” is the common excuse for it – it’s “normal” or “a rite of passage” for children.

“A school is a student’s second home, and assumed to be one of the safest places for children. Unfortunately, for some this is where they experience abuse,” says a statement from the United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF).  “Schools become the settings that expose children to violence, not just from their peers but also from teachers and school personnel.”

In 2012, the Department of Education (DepEd) issued its Child Protection Policy.  Since then, how many cases of bullying have been reported? In an article on bullying in school, which appeared in Philippines Graphic, Kenneth Tirado was quoted as saying: “There are no exact figures because these are not usually reported.  Usually, such instances are settled amicably within the school.  Only when parents are not satisfied with the school administration’s action do they complain to the news media.  When that happens, the DepEd learns what happened.”

Boys bully more than girls and the tormenting is more often physical. In the absence of studies done in the Philippines, we are quoting a research done by Debra J. Pepler of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University.  She found out that 23% of boys surveyed said they had engaged in bullying, compared to only 8% of girls.

Among victims, however, both genders were equally affected. With girls, bullying often takes more subtle forms, such as whispering campaigns, spreading rumors and shunning acts designed to destroy friendships. This can be every bit as painful as physical aggression.

“Many parents are unaware that it is happening because they never discuss it with their kids and because bullying is often a kind of underground activity that many children won’t report,” wrote Dr. Richard B. Goldbloom in an article which appeared in Reader’s Digest.

In the Philippines Graphic article, Regina Sevilla-Sibal explained to author Fil V. Elefante when bullying happens. “Bullying occurs when the target has no opportunity or way to balance the equation,” said Sibal, an experienced school administrator and educator. 

Sibal cited an example: “There’s a group of kids teasing one child because they think he’s too smart for his own good.  But when they’re in class, these kids ask for the smart one’s notes.  However, the smart child refused to deal with these kids.  Is this bullying?  No, because that child has a way to balance the equation.”

As stated earlier, bullying occurs when the child has no means to balance the equation.  “Bullying occurs when the child feels disempowered,” Sibal pointed out.

Aside from those experienced by Dave, other manifestations that a child is being bullied if he or she: is frightened of going to school and is difficult to wake in the morning; doesn’t want to ride the school bus; begs to be driven to school; becomes withdrawn, anxious, or lacking in confidence; cries him/herself to sleep at night or has nightmares; feels sick in the morning; and comes home with clothes torn or books damaged.

A child is also being bullied if he or she has possessions (like pens or pencils) that end up “missing”; asks for money or starts stealing money (to pay the bully); comes home starving (money/lunch has been stolen); stops eating; and is frightened to say what’s wrong. 

A major red flag is when he or she attempts or threatens suicide or runs away from home.  Bullying leads to several suicides every year. In the United Kingdom, one study found out that between 15 and 25 children commit suicide every year because they are being bullied.

In some instances, the effects of bullying can be serious and even fatal.  The link between bullying and school violence has attracted increasing attention since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in the United States.  That year, two shotgun-wielding students, both of whom had been identified as gifted and who had been bullied for years, killed 13 people, wounded 24, and then committed suicide.

A year later an analysis by officials at the U.S. Secret Service of 37 premeditated school shootings found that bullying, which some of the shooters described “in terms that approached torment,” played a major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks.

What turns some children into bullies? There are no research data done in the Philippines but researchers, led by Kris Bosworth of the University of Arizona, collected information from 558 students in grades 6 to 8, then divided the students into three groups: 228 who rarely or never bullied anyone; 243 who reported a moderate level of bullying; and 87 who reported excessive amounts of bullying.

“Those who reported the most bullying behavior had received more forceful, physical discipline from their parents, had viewed more TV violence and showed more misconduct at home,” Dr. Goldbloom wrote.  “Thirty-two percent lived with a stepparent, and 36 percent lived in a single-parent household. Bullies generally had fewer adult role models, more exposure to gang activity and easier access to guns. This partly explains why bullies need help as much as victims: Many learn their behavior by example.”

But is bullying a common phenomenon in the Philippines? In 2008, a baseline survey involving 2,442 children from 58 public schools was conducted by the Plan Philippines.

“Results of the survey show that peers perpetrate most forms of violence experienced by children,” commented Plan Philippines country director Michael Diamond. “Ridicule and teasing by peers are the most common experiences. Across three age ranges surveyed, the incidence of ridicule and teasing was reported to have been experienced by 50 percent among children in Grades 1 to 3; 67 percent among children in Grades 4 to 6; and 65 percent among children in high school.”

The word “bully” was first used in the 1530s, which means “sweetheart,” which was applied to either sex.  It was coined from the Dutch boel (“lover, brother), probably diminutive of Middle High German buole (“brother”). The meaning deteriorated through the 17th century through “fine fellow,” “blusterer,” to “harasser of the weak.” This may have been as a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” as in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of “bully” (though not specifically attested until 1706.  The verb “to bully” is first attested in 1710.

The victim of bullying is sometimes referred to as a “target.”  Bullying behavior may include name calling, verbal or written abuse, exclusion from activities, exclusion from social situations, physical abuse, or coercion. Bullies may behave this way to be perceived as popular or tough or to get attention. They may bully out of jealousy or be acting out because they themselves are bullied.

In her weekly column, Cathy S. Babao-Guballa defines bullying as an “aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power and strength and which is repeated over a period of time. As opposed to conflict, which involves a misunderstanding or antagonism between two or more people, bullying only occurs where there is an imbalance of power, where one child has great difficulty defending himself or herself against another child or person.”

While bullying gets a lot of attention from parents and teachers in industrialized countries (like those being depicted in Hollywood movies), such is not the case in the Philippines.  Dr. Honey Carandang, a noted Filipino psychologist and author, has often expressed her disappointment over the seeming lack of concern that school authorities have shown towards bullying incidents that take place right under their noses.

“It’s really sad how, instead of being helped, the bullied child is sometimes even blamed for the bullying that has taken place,” Dr. Carandang deplored, adding that there should be more programs put in place to further educate teachers and administrators about the dangers of bullying and to teach them to be more sensitive.

“There are three persons who need to be helped and empowered here – the bully, the bullied, and the bystander,” Dr. Carandang.  She further said that everyone needs to be part of the solution and that if a teacher or student is in a class or is a witness to a bullying incident elsewhere on campus and does nothing, then that person is as much a part of the problem as the bully.

Babao-Guballa believes that an anti-bullying program in the Philippine setting “can only be effective if both the school and the parents’ association work together to discourage bullying, both in private and public schools.”

“School bullying is everyone’s business,” wrote Dr. Goldbloom.  “It is unrealistic to expect it can be totally eliminated: We can’t eradicate the conditions that turn some children into bullies and others into targets.  But if everyone, concerned teachers, school authorities, police, parents and children is truly committed to zero tolerance, then there is solid evidence that the amount and the severity of bullying can be reduced dramatically.”