Mark Creedon

Mark Creedon

Creedon is executive director of Catholic Family Services Peel-Dufferin.

As children get back into school-day routines this fall, they’ll have the support of a new framework to deal with bullies and bullying. That’s a very good thing.

In Catholic schools, the anti-bullying initiative is called Respecting Difference. Its aim is to create learning environments, consistent with Catholic teaching, in which every student can feel safe and be treated with respect and dignity.

This new focus on bullying puts to the test all our earnest talk about the critical alliance of home, school and parish in caring for children. If we’re going to have an effective Catholic strategy for dealing with bullying, we need to bring the resources of all three to bear. I’m not talking about a naive appeal to some ideal world of perfect families, wise pastors and dedicated teachers, but a sophisticated approach that uses the expertise of trained professionals to deal with imperfect families and stressed systems.

It is admirable that society finally recognizes bullying as a major concern. Now all schools in Ontario must have plans to eradicate it. The one regret I have is that new strategies do not pay enough attention to the bully in cases of serious and chronic bullying.

After 38 years in social work, I have developed a firm belief that bullies are created. They’re not born. Admittedly, some children are born to be more aggressive than others. But bullying and aggressiveness are not identical. Racism, ethnic discrimination, handicaps, personality, physical size, poverty and other variables children are born with or born into play major roles in bullying and victimization. But these conditions do not tell the entire story. Children who are bullies and even children who are victims of school bullying are often survivors of child abuse, child neglect or are witnessing domestic violence in their homes.

I do not mean that every single victim of school bullying is experiencing maltreatment at home or witnessing domestic violence. I do not even mean that all bullies are bullied or are witnessing bullying at home. I am saying that it happens more often than most people believe. Bullying should be a red flag for all of us. It should point the way to further investigation.

There’s science to back this up. In a cohort study of 2,232 children, Bowes et al (2009) found children exposed to domestic violence were more likely to be bullies or bully victims (both bully and victim) than those children not exposed to domestic violence. Shields and Cicchetti (2001) concluded that maltreated children were more likely to be bullies and were more likely to be victims of bullying.

I estimate that more than 85 per cent of men attending groups for men who have physically harmed their wife or common–law partner watched their mothers being assaulted by their fathers when they were children. The lesson is clear. Children repeat what they see and what they live with in their homes.

When teachers see bullying they should not leap to the conclusion domestic violence or child abuse is going on in the home of either the victim or the abuser, but it should be a red flag. The teacher may need to ask for the help of a school social worker and if they discover that child maltreatment is going on they will need to get clinical help for the victim and for the bully.

Fortunately, most communities have a family services agency and these organizations are skilled in dealing with trauma. Family service agencies can assist the perpetrator, the survivor and the children witnessing domestic violence. In a Catholic environment, we have a special imperative that should guide our actions. We need to hate the sin of violence but love the sinner. Bullying can not be condoned but the bully and the victim both need help.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that schools need to have a good anti-bullying policy and they must follow it. It is important to separate minor bullying from serious bullying. In the case of serious or chronic bullying, the school social worker or some other professional should be consulted.

This is also an opportunity for the parish, the Catholic school and the Catholic family services agency to work together to end the violence and to begin the healing.