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26 January 2007

Bullying never ends

Louise Sweeney is a National Executive Committee (NEC) member and on the NUS' Welfare Team

By Louise Sweeney

Many people know the feelings; walking through school corridors afraid to look up, feeling worthless as you are publicly belittled in front of a laughing class, that feeling of dread when you reach the bus stop after school to see them waiting there and wondering why me? You leave school and society tells you; you’ve left the bullies behind too, that you’re an adult now and so are they, bullying doesn’t happen any more.

Jade Goody showed the word this week that no matter what age you are, bullying and pact culture still rears its head in all its ugly guises. Shock waves spread through the media as Goody and her pack, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd, made Shilpa Shetty feel isolated, insecure, and demeaned, through hurtful arguments, comments and jibes targeted at her differences, mainly her ethnicity, culture and class, whilst living in the Celebrity Big Brother House.

It was uncomfortable to watch somebody be treated in this way and frustrating to not have the ability to go in there and shout ‘open your eyes, look at what you are doing!’. Sadly, what we witnessed through the boxes in our living rooms happens every day; right in front of our very eyes, on our college campuses, in our workplaces and in our communities.

When Goody was evicted by the voting public on Friday night she was shown her actions and given the chance to reflect on them. I am not surprised that Goody was shocked by her actions and nastiness, she didn’t realise what she was doing in the house, and the house mates who stood back and did nothing will be just as shocked as well. As outsiders looking in it was very clear to us that bullying was happening.

Living in halls of residences as a student can bear many similarities to the big brother house; total strangers thrown together in a close and stressful environment, clashes in age, culture and class frequently occur, mammoth arguments occurring over trivial matters such as the washing up, and those that don’t blend with the majority experience bullying by those that don’t even realise they are doing it.

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As a fresher, I did nothing to help someone living in the flat opposite me. He was bullied by my friends. Whether it was name calling, tipping the flat’s rubbish all over him and his room when he was asleep, or getting ready in complete silence so they could sneak out together for a night out without having to invite him, he was constantly the subject of everyone’s jokes and in an attempt to fit in with their new friends, nobody said anything about it. They were just having a laugh, he annoyed them, and we didn’t think he’d leave Uni because of it. But he did. It wasn’t until years later, reflecting on our first year of University that we remembered those first few weeks, and realised that is was bullying that had taken place – right in front of our very eyes.

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Thanks to some very effective campaigning highlighting the terrible impact that bullying can have on school children and teens, and because of reasonably regular reporting on bullying in the work place being resolved in the courts, some types of bullying are very much on the political agenda. But why is the gap between work and school considered unworthy of proper attention- as if this period of people’s lives is immune to the problem?

The experience I recounted above isn’t a one off. It happens all the time. So how many Universities and Colleges have a policy on Bullying? How many awareness campaigns are run for students to highlight these issues? I can tell you – very few, if any at all. When elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of NUS, myself and fellow NEC member Ama Uzowuru, saw the opportunity to look into this issue nationally. NUS has launched its first survey to asses the level of bullying on our campuses, so far we have had over 1700 respondents from across the UK. This is a start but more must be done, more research is needed, students need to be made aware of their rights and support available to them, and that support needs to be there in the first place.

NUS will be equipping Students’ Unions with the tools they need to fight for these improvements, supporting them in lobbying for anti-bulling policies and raising the profile of this issue with University and College staff, students and the Government.
Until bullying is recognised as a serious issue little will be done. The events on our screens this week have shown how too easily it happens. We must remember that this was no soap opera, it was a reality TV Show and that bullying is a reality everywhere. When the program ends we cannot forget the debate that has taken place; we must look to our own lives and those around us.

We can often act, and speak too quickly, with little thought to how those words will affect others. A few playful jibes can soon turn into constant, malicious behaviour. We reach a certain age and are told to toughen up or give as good as we get, well its time the bullies took responsibility instead of the bullied and think about their actions and the consequences.
Bulling is harmful to all involved, not just the bullied. The bullied can suffer from increased anxiety and stress, poor health, depression and even suicide. They may leave the course or job of their dreams just to escape the bullies; their whole life could change as a result. Its time to stop dismissing the issue in everyday life and to challenge it head on; the campaign will begin to lead us in this direction by challenging policy and perceptions but as individuals we all must act.