Suicide case calls attention to bullying

“I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. I don’t understand your question.” The director of the elementary school in Plagia on the northern Aegean island of Lesvos, where a group of schoolchildren “hanged” a 9-year-old classmate from a basketball hoop at the end of January, sounded categorical over the phone. “In our case it was an accident, what happened in Ioannina [where 20-year-old student Vangelis Giakoumakis committed suicide in February] is another story.” On Lesvos, the boy fell and fractured his hand.

While the Ministry of Education ordered an inquiry into the events in Plagia, referring to the incident as “the accident suffered by a pupil in the schoolyard,” the island’s elementary school teachers’ association in a statement recently spoke of the “unfortunate incident,” slamming the probe for “brutally tormenting teachers, parents and pupils in order to come up with culprits.”

As soon as the cameras stop flashing and the public turns its curious attention elsewhere, the problem seems to go away. Bullying? What bullying? “The same will happen with the Ioannina case,” Panayiotis Siaperas, a psychologist with extensive knowledge about school bullying, predicted recently. “Everyone will victimize each other, the whole thing will be forgotten and life will just carry on.”

Beyond dramatic headline news, the phenomenon of bullying is very much present and according to specialists it appears to have increased in the last few years due to the impact of the crisis on Greek families.

“Dad, don’t worry, if they push me around again, I found a hole in the fence and I’ll get out,” a 9-year-old recently told his father. The child in question is a fourth-grader at a state school in Halandri, northern Athens. He is one of five children currently being targeted by his classmates. A few days ago, he was injured when the bullying ringleader punched him in the face. Before the attack, the perpetrators – 9-year-olds – had punched his younger brother, a second-grader, “to teach him a lesson.” One of the five children had to change school. “The others would gladly leave too, if they could,” noted Theologos Bosdas, a Halandri Parents’ Association board member. “Besides physical abuse, there are also threats and other kinds of manipulative behavior. For instance, kids say things like, ‘If I’m not invited to your party I will tell the others not to go either.’ It’s rather shocking, considering that these are fourth-grade pupils we are talking about.” It’s hard to believe, but bullying starts at kindergarten. “It’s as if it has a hereditary quality attached to it,” noted Bosdas. “For some reason there is aggressive behavior against the weakest pupils right from the beginning, something which carries on through the higher grades. In another case, a child had to wear a neck collar for a week after he was hit with a bottle of water in first grade.” Urged by parents, the school has implemented an anger management program this year.

At the offices of the Attica Police child protection unit, phones kept ringing after news of Giakoumakis’s death emerged. “While last year we handled very few cases, about three or four, two complaints were filed yesterday alone. One of them involved a child who was pushed down the stairs and ended up with a injured knee cap,” said officer Georgia Patronoudi, in charge of a child supervision division. “Since the Ioannina incident people have opened up. There is a lot of mobilization.”

Generally speaking, however, cases of bullying rarely reach the authorities as they are usually dealt with – or not – within the school framework. “We usually get to handle those cases that cannot be solved at school. Such as a case involving an elementary school pupil whose pocket money was constantly being stolen. Or another case involving two girls whose classmates threatened to upload [inappropriate] photos of them on the Internet.”

In the case of the Halandri school, the parents of the perpetrators refuse to accept or at least discuss the issue. This is standard behavior, according to Patronoudi.

“We usually get in touch with schools and urge directors to talk to the families, but most parents refuse to accept that their children may be involved in such a situation.”

According to Patronoudi, the phenomenon has been on the rise in the last few years. “From my experience, I believe that there are plenty of cases of school violence. The situation is even worse now because of the crisis: Parents are trying to make ends meet, they are rarely at home and maintain a minimum level of contact with the school, unless it has to do with grades. Nevertheless, it’s important they take an interest not only in their children’s performance, but in their behavior as well.”

Besides, the perpetrators are frequently victims of bullying themselves. “Someone who suffers abuse at the hands of his or her father could easily do the same to their classmates,” Siaperas said.

A joke gone wrong

It usually starts with a joke. “In most cases the situation escalates when children are unable to control a joke gone wrong,” said Manos Sfakianakis, director of the Cyber Crime Center of the Greek Police. So far, his department has given a total of 250 seminars across the country, along with 5,000 teleconference lectures on the subject of bullying prevention at schools.

“Quite often children lose control of their profiles on social networks,” noted Sfakianakis. “A classmate gets hold of their personal details and posts material under their name, such as comments on other pupils. The following day kids arrive at school only to find that the entire class is against them.”

According to Sfakianakis, it’s important that kids’ fun and games are not criminalized. “We should not reach a point when a kid glancing suspiciously at another is treated as a case of bullying. Bullying is something which happens over and over again and has to do with how the child who is being subjected to this kind of abuse feels: At first kids feel a kind of threat which later on leads to fear, terror and anxiety. These are the initial stages. The climax is what we witnessed in Ioannina.”

Good parent-teacher relations are very important, according to psychologist and occupational therapist Siaperas. “You also need to maintain a good level of communication with the child,” he said. “If you fail to establish the proper channels of communication, you will never be in position to find out what is really going on.”

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