Dubai/ Abu Dhabi: Just days ago, 11-year-old Loujain Hussain, the youngest in her family, was just like any other happy, sweet little girl her age. Today, she is fighting to regain her health after days lying in a coma in a hospital, after a group of fourth graders attacked her so violently that it led to a brain haemorrhage.
The sheer scale of the violence meted out by the four boys sent shock waves across the community. The incident not only has revealed the ugly face of bullying in schools, but is also a wake-up call for society to put measures in place to prevent such incidents from recurring.
Was this just an isolated incident or are we turning a blind eye to bullying?
Many are still in denial. Those who believe that different forms of bullying are prevalent here, acknowledge that the magnitude of physical violence may not be as high as witnessed by Hussain. Nevertheless, the emotional scars left behind are often long-lasting, taking a lifetime to come to terms with.
"I just feel so helpless at times, looking into the eyes of my five-year-old [child] filled with tears," said a mother, who said her son has often been subject to bullying in his school bus.
"He is so terrified that he begs me not to complain, saying they will hurt him more."
The bus driver has tried disciplining the boys who pick on him, and has even complained to their parents, but it keeps happening every once in a while, she said.
"My child recently came home crying and complaining of pain, with a bump on her forehead, saying how a bad boy in her class hurt her," Rakhee Mansukhani, the mother of a kindergarten (KG2) pupil, said.
She was told that the teacher stepped out of the class momentarily when the incident happened. "I learnt from the school that the boy regularly bullies his peers, whacking children around him with whatever he gets hold of. And the boy's parents have been informed as well, but they snapped back complaining about the teachers being rude to him," she said.
Certainly something needs to be done, perhaps having assistant teachers or nannies for lower grades could help, added Mansukhani. There have also been incidents where outraged parents have taken matters into their own hands, schools told Gulf News.
Recently, in a fit of rage, a father pulled out a ‘bully' from his class and slapped him to avenge the injuries inflicted on his child. The management of the reputed school intervened and prevented the situation from escalating further, and sent out a notification to parents, not allowing them to enter the school premises without prior appointment, and limiting access. At another school, a father followed a school bus, flagged it down, entered the bus and slapped a child. Although a police complaint was lodged, it was later dropped.
"Bullying is a problem here as much as it is in any other society," says Samineh Shaheem, assistant professor of Psychology at the Human Resources Institute.
Shaheem, who organised an awareness campaign ‘Bolt Down on Bullying' in 2010, said that while there are no official figures in the UAE on the topic, it still exists and should be addressed.
"We know it's happening; we know that a lot of it is not reported. We know that it's not getting the attention it needs to get," she warned.
"No school is a battlefield. Schools should be a safe, secure environment in which the educational and emotional needs of the child are met," she said.
But just like any war zone where there's power play between two camps, any school can have a bully and a target. While virtually anyone can be a target, not everyone can be a bully. "Bullies are very manipulative. They have a strong need to want to control and exert their dominance over others," Shaheem said.
"Bullies often lack empathy and have an inability to regulate their emotions. So if they're angry, going through a bad day, or they're sad or depressed, they don't have the skill or the ability to manage those emotions, so they may react outwardly."
All these negative behaviours, unfortunately, are mostly acquired by the bullies from the environment they are in, she added.
"Bullying doesn't happen all of a sudden. There can be a history of triggered events which have put the victim in the situation. Our parenting styles are also to be blamed here," Anita Sunil, clinical psychologist at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, said.
"It has more to do with the parental upbringing: what values you put into your child and how you prepare them."
"Generally, bullies were bullied by their older brother or sisters. It's very common that bullies themselves have gone through being bullied which creates a vicious pattern or cycle," Shaheem said.
And because the UAE is essentially a transient society, newcomers who are still adjusting to their new environment could become easy targets of these bullies. Sometimes, it could be anyone who looks "different" from the average "normal" child.
But just punishing a bully for his acts does not solve the problem. "Traditionally, that is what we have been doing, but it is insufficient."
"Instead, their behaviour needs to be corrected by channelling their need to be in control and in power to a more constructive and appropriate arena," Shaheem said.
A study by doctors Rigby and Johnson, professors at the University of South Australia, about bullying in schools, suggests that bystander intervention — by the students themselves — will help to stop bullying. The study was done in various countries including Australia, Italy, Bangladesh, South Africa and England, to provide a more comprehensive analysis inclusive of multiple cultures.
"Inducing students who observe bullying taking place at school, to take action and discourage aggressors, was proven successful in reducing bullying," Dr Rigby said.
"Bullying takes place when bystanders are present, but most do not act to discourage it. When any of them does, bullying stops in 50 per cent of the cases," he said.
"A large proportion of students would like to see bullying stopped. According to the study 57 per cent of interventions to discourage bullying were effective in stopping the bullying," Dr Rigby said.
The study included investigations on the way bystanders reacted when viewing bullying incidents and reported that peers aged 5-12 were present in 85 per cent of bullying episodes.
The study examined 53 videos of bullying witnessed by peers. It showed that aggression was discouraged only in 25.4 per cent of the incidents while bullying was encouraged in 20.7 per cent and in 53.9 per cent of the times watchers were passively reinforcing the bullying by just watching.
Another study by the University of Washington about bullying in elementary schools in Washington suggested that introducing a "Violence Prevention Curriculum" at schools leads to a reduction in aggressive behaviour and better social behaviour among elementary school students.
The study included 790 students who were given, in their curriculums, 30 lessons that teach social skills related to anger management, impulse control and empathy. Two weeks after the introduction of the curriculum teachers' reports indicated a decrease in physical aggression. The study also showed that the change in behaviour was not temporary, and that aggression remained down for up to six months.
"Schools in general should have a code of conduct about different levels of offences. We teach this code to the students at the beginning of the academic year and send it to parents who sign it and send it back," said Adnan Abbas, director of Al Nahda School for Boys.
"Violence at schools should be dealt with at a social level first, through a dialogue established with the counsellor, awareness sessions and education on how to deal with peers' misbehaviour. Schools should work closely with parents and students," he said.
Effective supervision, instructions on how to behave, clarification on policies, ramifications, along with counselling have significant impact on violence in schools, he said.
Emirati lawyer Faisa Mousa said that violent incidents leading to severe injures, handicaps or death are dealt with according to the juvenile law.