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Bullies triumph in the wake of apathy

Publication Date : 12-02-2014


Public sentiment, coupled with government action, can make a difference in protecting innocent children from bullies.

The news hit me like a thunderbolt. T. Kavinraj, a 13-year-old Malaysian student, was driven to suicide by bullies in his school. He drank pesticide and died a painful death at a clinic in Semenyih, Selangor, on Saturday.

I am horror-stricken and deeply saddened because we have all collectively failed this young boy. Despite The Star’s anti-bullying campaign that we launched last year, we were unable to reach Kavinraj to tell him where and how to get help.

We started our Rage Against Bullying campaign because we knew it was a serious problem among our young people.

A survey showed that 84% of children had faced some form of bullying and 40% kept silent about it.

Bullying has been going on for generations and yes, most kids manage to grow up relatively unscathed. But that does not make it right, especially when kids are also facing a new threat from cyber-bullies.

Kids who are picked on can suffer terrible emotional and physical abuse.

Some who feel so trapped contemplate or attempt suicide. Those like Kavinraj tragically succeed while others have died at the hands of their bullies, like 16-year-old Mohammed Naim Mustaqim Moha­mad Sobri.

This was the impetus for our campaign. We set up a website, enlisted partners and celebrities to spread the message in the paper and on radio.

Our Youth Desk wrote weekly stories and visited schools to address the students directly. We did all that and yet, it wasn’t enough.

What we tried so hard to prevent has happened again.

What’s more, I can predict the same old sad scenario will be played out: there will be the outcry, investigations, the perpetrators expelled and sometimes charged and vows of “never again”.

But the fury and angst dies down almost as soon as the victim is buried.

Can we not let that happen this time? We can see the power of officialdom if it is applied properly. In fact, the two stories we ran on Monday on the same page: “Driven to death by bullies” and “Children of couple detained in Sweden start school”, showed that clearly.

The Malaysian couple, Azizul Raheem Awalludin and Shalwati Nurshal, were detained for allegedly smacking their son for not performing his prayers. But their detention without bail (which is a normal practice under Swedish law) and their four children fostered to non-Muslim families had been going on for more than a month before the Malaysian media got wind of it and made it a national issue.

Surely the authorities already knew of the family’s plight before the story broke locally. Yet, it required the massive outpouring of sympathy and demand for action by Malaysians to galvanise our government to negotiate with the Swedish authorities to allow the kids to be brought home.

It was the right thing to do.

Azizul, the Tourism Malaysia director in Stockholm, and his teacher wife Shalwati, were finally charged with “assault and gross violation of their children’s integrity” on Monday. We can only hope that “cultural differences” will not get in the way of a fair trial.

But at least we know their four children are home and safe in the care of their relatives.

To me, it shows how powerful and effective public sentiment coupled with government action can be.

Let’s see it happen for Kavinraj’s death because if public apathy killed him, then public outrage, while too late to save him, can work to save others.

A family friend who became a father figure to Kavinraj, after his dad died a year ago, lamented his lack of action when the boy asked him to confront his bullies.

“I said to him ‘no need lah’ and told him to just inform his teacher. I wish I had taken him more seriously,” the friend was quoted as saying.

And now the school authorities claim they were not aware of the bullying as Kavinraj had not reported it to the disciplinary teacher.

This is most likely to be true as turning to the school authorities for help is not often something that children, or their parents, consider as first option.

Recently, the parent-teacher association chairman of a prominent school in Kuala Lumpur even lamented, in a letter to this paper, over “political interference” when the school administration acted to expel five students for beating up other students.

In such scenarios, we can see that indifference, fear and external pressures all can be factors as to whether a child is willing to report instances of bullying.

All this doesn’t help create a school environment that protects and nurtures vulnerable or special needs children. I know that from my own experience dealing with indifferent teachers.

My daughter is dyslexic and as a child, she had trouble keeping up with her lessons in class. Because of that, every year at the start of the new term, I would visit her primary school to meet her class teacher to explain my child’s condition so that she would not be seen as stupid or lazy and be punished.

Almost every time, I could see the annoyance and displeasure of the teacher because it meant more work for her and she could not pretend not to know about my child’s dyslexia.

Anyway, my daughter didn’t get any special attention from her teachers. At best, they left her alone and for that I was grateful.

Now I am sure there are many dedicated and caring teachers out there but I am sorry to say my daughter and I met precious few during her primary school years.

That is part of the problem: most teachers, already burdened with large classes and a heavy workload, would rather not know. Kavinraj may not have told his teacher, but according to the family friend, there were signs that the boy was deeply troubled.

If his family, who must have been grieving over the loss of his father, could not read the signs until it was too late, surely the teachers should have known better. Or did they turn a blind eye because bullying is so commonplace in many schools?

That’s why we need strong public sentiment to push for change. One way, I think, is to introduce legislation, Swedish style.

For every child who is hurt or killed by school bullies, his teachers should be held liable, charged and punished.

I truly believe that this will be an effective way to get schools and teachers to take bullying seriously and take action when they know of or see a child under their care being victimised.

This may sound extreme but when young lives are at stake, this is the kind of extremism I can accept.


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