During one of my weekly visits to schools in Bedfordshire and for the first time in a public setting, I shared my experience of being bullied in school with a group of Year 4 pupils. That I still recall this horrific experience from 30 years ago is quite telling.
The reality is that bullying does not only occur in the school playground nor is it something we all ‘grow out of. In fact, some of us cling on to our bullying tendencies as we would to dear life itself, ruining lives, homes and places of work in the process.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), defines bullying as ’offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.
Consider what happens when a line manager threatens a member with their job, simply for disagreeing on a point of principle. Perhaps a work colleague picking on another because of their accent. It could even be pointing out a difference in another as to belittle or ostracise them. These experiences may resonate with many of us.
My experience of running a business as an employer for nearly two decades, and now as Police and Crime Commissioner in Bedfordshire, have taught me that bullies come in all shapes and sizes, gender, ethnicities etc. In fact, the dynamics of this power structure means that one need not be a Company Director or ‘the boss’ to be a bully. A middle manager could be the institutional bully as much as it could be a work colleague or class mate. The impact is nonetheless the same, with victims feeling depressed, fearful for their jobs or status, and in some cases feeling suicidal. The tragic death from suicide of 13 year old Sam Leeson comes to mind.
In my case, I don’t recall feeling any of these, but fear was something I felt. I know I had the thought of getting my own back on the large group of boys who ‘jumped’ me on my way back home from school, and never allowing myself to be without options in future. Thankfully, I chose not to join a gang for protection or to carry a weapon for safety. Somehow, I got myself to school the following day but never walked alone again for quite some time.
While the cases of permanent exclusions from school due to bullying has decreased by 64% since 2006/07, 1 in 4 children in the UK have reported being a victim of bullying in recent years and 77% of these say it has had a negative impact on their mental health. Our schools are doing a far better job now than when I was at school, but there is still more that needs to be done.
We know that bullying and fear of the type of violence that comes with bullying are contributing factors in young people carrying knives.
It is clear to me that if we want to tackle the cases of serious violence in society today, we need to get to the root causes of these. In my view, bullying in the home, at school, in relationships and certainly in the workplace must be called out and stamped out.
The internet, social media and smartphones have provided a more insidious set of tools for those who choose to bully and harass others. Elements of these are seen in revenge porn, stalking, trolling, and other forms of cyber related offences aimed at intimidating, humiliating and denigrating others.
While we rightly call on the operators of these platforms to better regulate this technological ecosystem, it is imperative that as individuals we start by exercising elements of self-regulation. As adults with care responsibility for young people, we can, through our words and actions demonstrate that bullying is not acceptable nor will it be condoned. As work colleagues, middle managers and senior leadership teams, we too can demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to bullying in the workplace regardless of the push-back we may get.
Our children deserve to go to school without fear of being bullied. Likewise, we have the right to go to work without fear of intimidation and bullying. This is a disease we must stamp out. So on this anti-bullying week, I hope we can all stand united and strong against bullying and intimidation wherever it is found. This might be the only language that bullies truly understand.