An alarming increase in bullying at Gauteng schools has prompted the province's department of education to formulate a strategy to improve pupil safety.
With at least two pupils committing suicide in the first half of this year and seven expelled for bullying, Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy yesterday said action could not be delayed any longer.
Gauteng Childine has seen a sharp increase in the number of calls from victims of bullying.
Last year, the call centre received 4989 calls. In the past four months, it has received 2416 .
Of particular concern is the spike in cyber bullying, Unisa social worker and researcher Goodness Zulu said .
The youth research unit at Unisa published its findings in the report Working Together to End Bullying: The Prevention of Bullying in Gauteng Schools .
The report stated that 91.9% of the pupils interviewed said they were the target of a single bully, and 5.6% said they were bullied by two or more people.
Said Zulu: "Young people recognise that technology is creating a platform for bullying."
Cyber bullying is carried out on social networks, chat rooms, websites, Mxit, blogs, e-mails and SMSes, with cellphones being the weapon of choice.
Cyber bullies' verbal harassment includes stirring up rumours, making insults, issuing threats and sexually offensive remarks, and posting unflattering photos and videos, including images of people being humiliated by bullies.
Creecy yesterday said that though there had been a dramatic increase in the reporting of bullying cases, the number of incidents was probably even higher because pupils feared worse bullying if they spoke out.
"The most worrying consequence of bullying is the perpetuation of the bullying cycle," Creecy said, adding that some pupils resort to suicide to escape abuse.
Childline Gauteng receives about 25 reports of bullying a day, which adds up to 750 cases a month.
Lynne Cawood, a Gauteng Childline director, said: "Bullying is a major problem: it psychologically and physically affects children.
"Their school performances drop and it creates fear in children.
"Children develop a sense that the world is hostile."
The Unisa research found that, in addition to damaging a pupil's academic performance, bullying affected personal appearance and social interaction.
Zulu said some of the bullies interviewed during the research said they were cruel because "it made them feel good even though they knew it has a negative impact on others".
Creecy said that the department was planning a strategy to combat bullying, especially at "high-risk" schools.
"Preventative education and supportive school structures are important elements in reducing bullying in schools.
"Bullying does not just occur at schools and its effects can be felt throughout a community," she said.
So serious is the problem of bullying that both the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities last month joined forces with NGOs, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Film and Publication Board and others in a campaign to encourage pupils to take a stand against bullying and sexual violence at schools.
Deputy Basic Education Minister Enver Surty was present at the launch of the campaign in Soweto.
Surty encouraged pupils to foster "an atmosphere of mutual respect both inside and outside the classroom", to embrace "boldness, loyalty and honesty" and to report any wrongdoing.
Zulu said that a great deal needed to be done to tackle bullying, including age-appropriate intervention programmes, appropriate reporting structures, and the implementation of empowerment and proactive intervention strategies.
Zulu said that technology had made bullying more sophisticated and had enabled bullies to attack their victims out of school.
Such attacks were unremitting invasions of the life of their victim to the extent that some turned to suicide.
WHY VICTIMS SUFFER IN SILENCE
Bullying victims interviewed during the Unisa research had common responses why they chose to remain silent:
"I'm scared to tell my mother because she always yells at me."
"I am scared they would bully me more."
"I'm scared to make trouble at school."
"I'm scared to open up to my mom because she will think I'm a girl."
"Because I was feeling like I am alone in the world."
"They told me they will beat me up if I report them."
THE SCARS LEFT BY SCHOOL BULLIES
THIS month, the Gauteng department of education expelled five pupils from Lethabong Secondary School, in Pretoria. Four of them had been charged with bullying;
In February, the mother of a 16-year-old boy at a special-needs school in Milnerton, Cape Town, said her son often returned home with bruises on his face;
Also in February, David Hlongwane, of Soshanguve, near Pretoria, committed suicide after being attacked by four bullies. The bullies were suspended five months after the incident;
The Daily Dispatch reported in September that 96 Eastern Cape school children had committed suicide since the beginning of last year. The Eastern Cape education department cited bullying as among the factors that led to the suicides.
A Durban pupil did not go to school for almost two weeks in 2010 after being bullied.
Three years ago, a Cape Town pupil was hospitalised with second-degree burns after a 16-year-old pupil he was bullying threw a cup of coffee at him. - Philani Nombembe